Sailor Moon 4200: What has gone before
In the year 3478, Crystal Tokyo was destroyed. A nameless evil awoke deep under the city, and transformed much of the world's population into mindless crystalline creatures. An attack on the Ginzuishou itself left Queen Serenity impotent, and she and her Senshi died fighting a hopeless battle against the invaders.
Civilisation fell; a new dark age began. Now, centuries later, a new world order has arisen, centred on the city of Third Tokyo, and governed by the shadowy Serenity Council—and through them, by the unseen Enemy that destroyed Crystal Tokyo.
Artemis, Rei and Setsuna all survived the final battle. Now, Artemis and his young great-granddaughter Bendis have formed a new generation of Senshi: Mercury (Sharma Dhiti), Venus (McCrea Beth), Mars (Kodama Iku), Jupiter (Hayashi Miyo) and Uranus (Itagaki Suzue).
The Council have a hidden plan that involves the Senshi. They create monsters known as vitrimorphs, ostensibly to hunt the Senshi, but really to lure them into fulfilling the Council's purpose. The vitrimorphs are commanded by Twelve, a council member given strange powers by the Enemy.
The first exploits of the Senshi are national news but public opinion soon takes a disturbing direction: some people hate them; others want to worship them. One of the new Senshi, Suzue, is actually a member of the Church of Serenity, a group who believe that the queen was a goddess.
Meanwhile, the other survivors of Crystal Tokyo have become involved: Pappadopoulos Itsuko (previously known as Hino Rei), and Fumihiko Sadako (once Meiou Setsuna). Itsuko, now powerless, lives quietly as the owner of the Olympus Gymnasium. The Olympus comes under Council investigation when Itsuko tries to aid Artemis, and to preserve the secret of her past she seeks help from an old friend in the criminal Sankaku Clans; however this only makes the investigators more suspicious.
Artemis realises that Miyo is actually Kino Makoto, now reborn into a third lifetime. When he tries to reawaken her past memories, though, he accidentally restores her memories of the Silver Millennium too. Later, when her family learn of her past, they are shocked; her father formally disowns her, and she moves into the Olympus with Itsuko.
Meanwhile, a friend of Beth and Iku has learned that they are Senshi, and is looking for the identities of the others as well…
Tsukamoto awoke with the siren song of the plants in his ears. His eyes snapped open in indignation. It was no longer just his hedge; the green conspiracy was obviously spreading. He'd tried to warn the authorities, but would they listen?
Outside, the singing rose and fell. He scowled, and clenched his teeth in resolution. Very well, then; it fell to him to save the world. He would not flinch from his duty.
He rose from his bed, staggered a little at the pain in his back, and set about girding himself for war. Solemnly he wrapped a loincloth about his hips, and then flung open the wardrobe in the corner of his tiny room.
His eye fell upon a long bundle standing at the back, wrapped in faded silk. Forgetting his search for suitable battle-raiment, he lifted the bundle, removed the wrapping reverently, and held up the weapon thus revealed to catch the light.
It was a katana: a family heirloom, ancient and fabulously valuable. Tradition said that it had been forged by the legendary swordsmiths of Kyushu in 3927, only a few years before the city fell to the raiders. His arm shook, just a little, as he drew the blade. He held it aloft for a moment, his lips moving in a silent vow of dedication.
Then, with a defiant battle-cry on his lips, Tsukamoto Akira strode forth to war.
It was, his neighbours later agreed, one of old Tsukamoto's better mornings. He emerged from his room at the nursing home, scaring one of the nurses almost to death, and shouting that the plants were out to conquer the world. The bit about the plants, at least, was nothing new. The fact that he was wearing only a threadbare loincloth, and waving a baseball bat as if it were a sword…that part was different.
Followed by a small but steadily-growing crowd of delighted young children, he marched down to the botanical gardens, approached a stand of rose bushes, and challenged them to a duel. Nobody quite heard what the rose bushes replied, but it must have been inflammatory. Tsukamoto yelled at the top of his voice, and attacked.
It was quite a match. The roses gave a good accounting for themselves, judging by their assailant's shouts and curses. The battle raged back and forth for some time, or at least Tsukamoto did, with both sides taking a good deal of damage. Rather to everyone's disappointment, the proceedings finally drew to a halt when 'P' Division arrived.
"Did I win?" he asked the two harassed-looking officers plaintively as they disarmed him. "Is the Earth safe?"
The crowd gave him a round of applause as the officers helped him into an ambulance and drove off.
A teenage girl was walking through the gardens. She paused for a moment at the edge of the crowd, watching unobtrusively, as she went by. At last, unenlightened, Kodama Iku gave a baffled shrug and continued on her way to school.
By Angus MacSpon
Sailor Moon 4200 Home Page
Based on "Sailor Moon" created by Naoko Takeuchi
Beth sighed as she walked through the school gate. It felt like forever since she'd been here. The previous day alone had seemed to last an eternity. It had been seven hundred and twenty-two years long…
And yet, she saw, the school was the same as ever. The sun still shone; the courtyard was filled with boys and girls, talking and laughing. Nothing had changed; yet at the same time, it seemed somehow unfamiliar. That meant something, she thought; but what? Was it she, and not the school, that was different?
She did not have long to brood about it, however. Nanako intercepted her as she walked toward the school building. Some things, she realised wryly, never changed.
"Hiya, Beth-chan!" the girl said cheerfully. "Have a good weekend? You look tired," she added, frowning at her for an instant.
"Umm. Fine," Beth answered. In fact she'd been beaten nearly to death on Saturday, and then spent all Sunday listening to the story of the end of the world; but she could hardly mention that. And she did feel tired; she hadn't gotten much sleep the night before. Her head still ached, and her dreams had been bad.
"Oh. Good," Nanako answered, not seeming to notice her lack of enthusiasm. Then she frowned. "You're limping."
"I went out jogging," Beth replied. "I fell, and got banged up a bit." All three statements, she reflected morosely, were literally true. They just didn't quite go together the way they sounded.
"You should relax more," Nanako advised her sagely. "All that…action stuff is bad for you." She laughed, as if she'd said something funny.
"I suppose so." A moment later Beth brightened as a familiar figure approached. "Good morning, Eitoku-kun," she carolled.
"Good morning, Beth-chan," he answered solemnly. "Hi, Nana-chan. What's new?"
Nanako's eyes lit up. "I heard there was another Senshi battle on Saturday," she said.
Eitoku let out a groan. "Hooray," he said.
"You did?" Beth blurted out at the same moment, startled. But that wasn't in public, she thought, alarmed. "Um…where did you hear that?" she asked.
"Beth-chan, please. I hear everything. You know that." Nanako looked insufferably smug. "Apparently a burglar alarm went off at an abandoned warehouse, and 'P' Division found a lot of wreckage there, and piles of those crystal shards all over the place. And"—she played her trump card—"there were two dead bodies in one of the buildings. And they were surrounded by photographs of Sailor Venus!" She fixed Beth with a gimlet stare. "What do you think of that?" she demanded triumphantly.
Beth shrank back. "Bodies?" she asked, shocked. "And—photographs of m—of Venus? I—how? Where?"
Eitoku sighed. "Where do you hear all this stuff, Nana-chan?" he asked. "Sometimes I think you're making it all up."
"Don't be silly. My father is a 'P' Division officer, remember?" Nanako smirked at him. "I should start charging you guys for all this information. I could make a fortune."
He snorted. "You think people would pay to hear you spread rumours?"
"Well, that's true." She pulled out her purse and studied it mournfully. "Besides, it'd be too much trouble. All that running around, collecting debts…Hey, you all right, Beth-chan?"
"I—" Beth swallowed. "Bodies?" she repeated. "Who? What happened to them?"
Nanako studied her thoughtfully for a moment. At last she said, rather more seriously, "A pair of caretakers, I think. Dad didn't say much." Beth waited for her to ask why she wanted to know, but she didn't. Instead, for no apparent reason, she said, "All the photos were blurry, like always."
"Oh!" Beth hadn't even considered that. Then a happier thought occurred to her. "So they still don't know who Sailor Venus is."
Nanako winced, as if in pain. "No," she said heavily. "I guess they don't. Hey, Beth-chan, have you ever heard of the word 'subtlety'?"
"Huh?" Beth stared at her. "Yes, of course. What are you talking about?"
"Oh, nothing. So, Eitoku-kun, anything exciting happen to you over the weekend?"
"Who, me? No." Nanako rolled her eyes at Beth, who stifled a giggle. But then Eitoku brightened and said, "Oh, wait. I was doing some reading at the library—" Nanako rolled her eyes again "—and I saw this announcement on the notice-board. 'D' Division is sponsoring a new political-studies program for students. I sent off an application form."
Nanako blinked. "I asked if you did anything exciting, and you tell me about a political-studies program?"
He glared at her. "That is exciting!" he protested. "You know I want to join 'D' Division when I graduate, and this could be a big help!"
Beth could not keep the laugh in any longer. "'D' Division? You want to be a spy?"
"Diplomat!" he retorted.
Beth and Nanako glanced at each other. Then, "Spy!" they chorused.
"Is this a private game, or can anyone join in?" came a voice from behind them.
"Spy!" shouted Nanako happily. "Oh, hi, Iku-chan. No, roll on in. We're just telling Eitoku-kun how he—"
She blinked. "Iku-chan?"
It was Iku, all right, but she was smiling: faintly, nervously, but definitely. It made her whole face look different. "Hi, Nana-chan, Eitoku-kun," she said. "Hi, Beth-chan."
Her smile faded as the other three stared at her. "Umm," she said hesitantly, "what were you telling Eitoku-kun?"
"Um. Right." Nanako gave her one more look, then shook her head. "We were, um, just telling 'Toku-chan how he—"
Beth listened with half an ear as Nanako effortlessly spun the story out into a lengthy drama, with frequent interruptions and complaints from Eitoku. Most of her attention was on the girl standing beside her.
Iku had been so upset yesterday and on Saturday; now, suddenly, she was acting almost…well, normal. She wasn't cringing whenever anyone looked at her; she was speaking without being spoken to; and she was, well, smiling. Beth had never seen her this way before.
—Well, no. Actually, she had seen Iku this way—weeks ago, back when Beth had been watching the three secretly; before she'd dared to speak to Eitoku. Iku had seemed a lot more alive then. And come to think of it, even yesterday, once she'd calmed down, she'd seemed pretty relaxed. What was going on?
She was jolted from her reverie by a shout from Eitoku. "All right, so I'm interested in politics!" he complained. "What's wrong with that?"
"It's the most boring subject on the planet!" Nanako shouted back. "That's what's wrong! You might as well spend your time watching snails climb a brick wall! At least the snails get somewhere!"
"It is not boring!" Eitoku insisted. "It's the most important thing in the world!" He clenched his fists, struggling to find the words. "It's…politics is what lets people live together, work together! It's not just about governments and who rules who. Politics is…is what separates us from animals!" He gazed at her earnestly. "Look, if two animals disagree, they fight. But politics is what lets humans not fight! If two people have a disagreement, instead of coming to blows over it, they can settle their differences and work out a solution they can both live with. And that's politics! Politics is everything!"
Nanako gave him a suspicious look. "You've been practising that speech, haven't you?"
He exploded. "Damn it, this is serious!" he shouted.
Her eyes widened; then, to Beth's surprise, Nanako actually backed down. "All right, all right, it's serious," she said placatingly. "Only…" She gave a melodramatic sigh. "Why did you have to be interested in something so dull? Give that brain thing of yours a rest, Eitoku-kun. Live in the real world for a change."
He snorted, shaking his head; but his anger had faded as quickly as it had flared up. "Real world? If I get into 'D' Division after I finish school, and work hard…who knows? I could end up on the Serenity Council someday. Is that real enough for you?"
Nanako made a face. "You, a Serry? What a horrible thought." She looked over to Beth. "Beth-chan…does this boy look like Serry material to you? Be honest now."
Beth thought about it. Eitoku was wearing that earnest, determined look that made her heart want to melt. She opened her mouth to answer—
"Beth," Nanako said sharply, "you're getting a 'yes' look on your face. Stop it."
"Fine," Beth huffed. "I'll just join 'D' Division as well, and be a spy like Eitoku-kun."
Eitoku groaned. "Diplomat," he insisted.
"Spy!" shouted Beth, Nanako and Iku together. Then they looked at each other and started to laugh.
At last Eitoku joined in. Once the laughter had died down, though, he said, "Come on, you know that's just in bad anime, that all the diplomats are really spies. It's an urban legend."
"Hey!" Nanako said indignantly. "'Shadow Ambassadors' is not a bad anime! It's great! Anyway," she added more quietly, "my father says half the staff in our embassies are sending back coded reports every day. You want to bet they aren't spies?"
"A lot your father would know about it," Eitoku said.
"He's a colonel in 'P' Division!"
"He's a lieutenant. You told me six months ago, remember?"
"Oh, that's right." Nanako hesitated. "Well—anyway—"
He shook his head sadly. "The bell's going to go in a couple of minutes. I'm going in to class." He turned and started toward the school building. Nanako gave a startled squawk and ran after him.
Beth waited for them to get out of earshot, and laid a hand on Iku's arm. "We have to talk," she whispered.
Iku jumped at the touch, then recovered. "What about?" she asked.
Beth took a quick glance around. Nobody was nearby. "After that fight at the warehouse on Saturday," she said quickly, "Nanako-chan says the police found two dead bodies in one of the buildings. Surrounded by pictures of me—I mean, Sailor Venus!"
Iku said nothing for a moment. "You think somebody knows who you are?" she asked cautiously.
"Maybe!" Beth hissed. "And maybe somebody killed those two people to find out, too! Iku-chan, what do you think I should do?"
"What do I think?" Iku seemed taken aback. At last, tentatively, she said, "You…could ask Bendis-san? Or Miyo-sama?"
"'Sama'?" Beth asked, startled. Then she shook her head impatiently. "Yeah! Great idea!" She pulled her sleeve back to reveal her communicator. "Geez, this thing's running fast again," she muttered. She tapped the 'send' control gingerly and waited.
After a few seconds the tiny screen lit up to show Miyo's face. "Beth?" she asked, startled. "What's the matter? Another attack?"
"No—" Quickly, Beth outlined what Nanako had told her. "What do you think we should do?" she finished nervously.
Miyo was silent for some time, frowning in thought. "Maybe that's what she was talking about," she said at last.
"Lady Blue. After the battle, she gave me a photograph of you. She told me that she'd…'taken care of it' for me. For us."
Beth stared at her, open-mouthed in shock. "You mean…she killed them so they wouldn't—they couldn't—No! That's impossible! You can't think that!"
"I think," Miyo said slowly, "that there might not be much she wouldn't do. I think that she wants us to…to do something for her, and maybe she doesn't want us…distracted until we've finished."
"But—" Beth began.
"And I think," Miyo went on, overriding her protest, "that I want Sailor Mercury to scan the site with her computer. If Lady Blue was there before you were, setting a trap…" She smiled, showing her teeth. "This time, she might just have made a mistake."
She broke the connection before Beth could answer her. Beth and Iku exchanged a long look.
"She said she'll look into it," Beth said at last.
Iku licked her lips nervously. "Bodies," she said, and shivered.
"Yeah." Beth felt like shivering too. Unconsciously, she reached up and rubbed the spot on her arm where she had been shot, a month before. The bullet had left a scar, so faint as to be almost invisible. Then, someone had shot her; now, two people were dead because of her. It was a dangerous game that she was involved in. And seven hundred years ago, all the players had died…
She tried to push the thought away, think of something else. To her relief, at that moment the school bell rang. She trudged in to class, still worried. She found it very difficult to concentrate on her lessons all day.
Wright Mark and Keenan Liam sauntered down the school hallway, talking animatedly. They were on their way to gym class, and taking their time about it; the PE teacher was notoriously late on Monday mornings. In the meantime, they had time to catch up on the weekend.
The two of them made a strikingly similar pair, except for their hair: Mark's was short and well-groomed, while Liam had a wild mane of a ponytail. Both attracted admiring glances from some of the passing girls. Both of them ignored the glances, for different reasons.
"So how was Saturday?" Mark asked, giving his friend a knowing grin. "Big date with the dream girl?"
Liam looked startled. "Who? Oh, Kin-chan." He snorted, and rubbed his cheek. "Not so great," he admitted after a moment.
Mark grimaced. "You're not getting grabby, are you? I told you, wait until the third date—"
"It's not that!" Liam was blushing. "Anyway, we've had more than three dates already…"
"Idiot." He sighed. "It's just…I like her, she likes me, so what's the problem? But on Saturday…" He rubbed his cheek again, reminiscently. "I don't know. I must have said something wrong, I don't even know what. But she tells me I need to sort out what I'm looking for…whatever that means. And now she's not talking to me," he finished mournfully.
Mark whistled slowly, and laughed. "You've got it bad, all right," he said.
"I suppose. I'll have to find a way to apologise to her, I guess. If I can work out what I did."
"You'll manage," Mark told him. "If she cares, she'll forgive you…eventually."
"Oh, that helps," Liam said sarcastically. "You think Miyo-san's ever going to forgive you?"
"Oh, man. Maybe in a thousand years." Mark grimaced. "I don't know what else I can do. Lately, she even looks at me and she gets mad. If I could just find out what happened to her—"
"Poking around and asking questions is what got her mad at you in the first place."
"Yeah. But still…"
They reached the boys' changing rooms and found their lockers. Mark began to unbutton his shirt, then paused as Liam touched his shoulder, holding a finger to his lips. Mark listened. Some other boys were talking, just out of sight around the corner.
"—Hayashi? Come on," one of them was saying. "The big cow'd hit you as soon as look at you!"
"Great tits, though," said another. They laughed.
"Yeah. Ohh, wouldn't mind getting a handful of that—"
"Is it worth your life, though?" More sniggering.
"Dunno why she's so snooty about it. You heard why she got thrown out of home, didn't you?"
"Oh, yeah, one of her customers complained to her father, right?" They laughed again. "Hey, did you hear what it was the customer complained about—?"
There was more, but Mark stopped listening. He looked down at his hands, frozen on the buttons of his shirt. Slowly and carefully, he removed the shirt and put it in his locker. Then he stepped around the corner and tapped on the shoulder of the nearest speaker.
"Excuse me," he said in a very calm voice. "What was it you were just saying?"
Bendis prowled through the McCrea home restlessly. She was bored beyond belief. It was not, she reflected frustratedly, shaping up to be a good day. For one thing, she was stuck inside.
When Beth's mother had left for her afternoon job, an hour before, she had absent-mindedly closed the little side-window that the cat used to get in and out of the house. Bendis didn't actually want to go anywhere, really; but the knowledge that she couldn't have even if she'd wanted to was driving her crazy.
She wandered into Helen and Edward's bedroom and stared around dourly. For a few moments she thought about leaving a hairball on the bed, just to let them know how she felt, but then reluctantly discarded the idea. Beth might get annoyed when she heard about it, and Bendis was trying to stay on Beth's good side at the moment.
The Senshi meeting the previous day had finally cleared the air between them. All the little untruths and prevarications were out in the open at last; and amazingly enough, Beth had accepted it all without hesitation. She had even taken Bendis' part against Artemis; and that had been a moment beyond price.
After the meeting, when they'd come home, the girl and the cat had played it very cool. They were old friends, that was all; and there was absolutely no need to mention certain uncomfortably emotional scenes that had played out earlier. They had said good night to each other calmly and gone to bed without any fuss, and Bendis for one had slept soundly. Eventually.
All the same, she had a nagging feeling that sooner or later the two of them were going to have to talk about it, and frankly she'd rather that it be later than sooner. Therefore, it was imperative that she not get Beth upset, because Beth might want to discuss Bendis' imagined shortcomings, and who knew where that might lead?
Abruptly, she realised that she was sitting on the windowsill, staring longingly out the window. With a snort, she turned and leaped down to the floor.
She landed next to a book that was lying open, face-down, on the floor by the bed. Rotten way to treat a book, she thought automatically. It was something she'd heard Beth say rather often. Beth was not a big reader, but she had definite ideas about how to look after the books she did have.
Then Bendis realised what else had caught her eye about the book, and forgot about the evils of cracked spines. The cover showed a dim, ghostly picture of a woman's face. Superimposed over it was embossed a stylised crescent moon. The title of the book was, "Secret Warriors: The Women Who Built Crystal Tokyo."
She stared at it uncertainly for a few minutes. It didn't necessarily mean anything, she told herself. It certainly didn't mean that Beth's parents knew too much. With a new group of Senshi operating in Third Tokyo, it would be perfectly natural for them to be reading up on the subject. She should almost have expected this.
All the same, she couldn't help remembering the time, weeks before, when Beth had told her that her mother distrusted the Senshi and had, in fact, made her promise to stay away from them. Beth had managed to word the promise so that she hadn't actually had to break it; but still, the situation had shaken her.
Now Bendis was the shaken one. The book meant nothing; surely it meant nothing; but still…did McCrea Helen suspect something?
It was possible. Bendis had to admit that Beth was not the best in the world at keeping secrets. (That Nanako girl had seen through her pretty quickly.) Historically, parents were not very good at realising that their daughters fought evil in their spare time; but she was not certain that the precedent would hold up in this day and age. There was Miyo's case, for example.
Perhaps it would be as well to have a word with Beth when the girl got home from school, she reflected. Just a caution, to be a little more on her guard. After all, if Beth got thrown out like Miyo, Bendis might end up back at the Olympus again.
She gave the book one more glance, then sighed and walked slowly out of the room. Maybe she could persuade Beth to read the book herself; it might give her a better idea of why secrecy was a good idea. Things had been pretty chaotic for Serenity and her friends, back when their identities had been revealed to the world at the end of the twentieth century.
Actually, it might do Beth good in other ways, too. Her ideas of the past were still a little distorted by that wretched viddy program, "Queen Serenity and her Senshi." It didn't help that, infuriatingly, Bendis still hadn't seen an episode herself.
That thought brought the cat to a sudden halt. She was in the living room. The viddy set was right there. And the remote control…was right there. She held up a paw and studied it, then looked at the remote control again.
"Well?" asked Miyo. "Did you find anything?" She was lying on her bed in her room in Itsuko's suite. It was growing dark outside.
She saw Dhiti sigh on the tiny screen of her communicator. "Did you have to call me on this thing?" her friend asked peevishly. "I was watching the viddy when it started beeping. I nearly had a heart attack. I thought it was a real emergency."
Miyo waved a hand impatiently at the screen. "Yes, but—" she began.
"My father was pretty surprised, too," Dhiti went on obliviously. Then she brightened. "He started asking nosy questions, so I told him it was my pacemaker going off."
"Yes, but…but…What did he say about that?" Miyo found herself asking involuntarily.
"He said good, if I ended up in hospital maybe he'd finally get some peace and quiet."
She took a deep breath, and counted to ten. "Yes, but what did you find?"
Dhiti gave a haughty sniff. "Anyone would think you want me to have a heart attack, Hayashi. Oh…all right. Yeah, I went back out to the warehouse and did some scans. The whole place was full of weird energy signatures, but I think that was from the shards of that vitri-whatsit. They matched—" She hesitated suddenly. "They matched other scans I've made of shards," she said at last.
Miyo noted her sudden reluctance, but decided to leave that point for later. Instead she focused on her direct concern. "What about Lady Blue? Did you get anything?"
"Not really." Dhiti shook her head. "I'm still pretty new at this stuff, Hayashi, and you know computers were never really my thing. I did check the room where the bodies were found." She grinned for a moment. "It was covered in 'P' Division markers. Easy to find."
"And?" Miyo insisted.
"And, nothing!" Dhiti gave her an annoyed look. "There wasn't anything there. The only other energy signature I could find was a burglar alarm on the wall; and even that had an 'M' Division label. No clues at all, Hayashi. Sorry."
Miyo sat down on her bed sharply. "Damn," she said. "I thought for once—I was so certain—"
"Yeah, well." Dhiti did not sound too sympathetic. "It was kind of a long shot, wasn't it? Old Lady Blue's been pretty clever so far."
"Yes, but if there'd been some remnant of the trap—anything we could have used to try and trace her…" Miyo sighed. "I just can't help thinking we're missing something obvious. Like the way she always looks so familiar for some reason…"
Dhiti rolled her eyes. "You keep saying that, but I can't see it. Look, don't knock yourself out, Hayashi. There'll be other days. Maybe next time she'll accidentally drop her business card, or something."
"You're a big help, Dhiti-chan."
"Oh, I know. But it's always nice to have confirmation. I'll send you a bill at the end of the month." Dhiti smirked at her. Then, suddenly, her eyes widened and she said, "Oh! While I remember—did Kin-chan give you the news after school today?"
Miyo blinked at the sudden shift in direction. "News? No. What—"
"She didn't tell you about Mark-kun?"
She felt a sudden sinking feeling. "Oh, no. What about him?"
Dhiti was actually jigging up and down in glee on the communicator screen. "Oh, you're going to love this! This is so great! I heard some of the other girls talking at school today. I was going to tell you about it, but then I had to run off to this old warehouse for no good reason—"
"Will you get on with it?"
"Calm down, Hayashi. You'll give yourself a heart attack." Dhiti chortled at her own wit, then rattled on, "It's just sooo romantic! Apparently he heard some of the other guys talking about you at gym, so Mark-kun—no, wait, I think I'm going to start calling him Mark-chan. Do you think he'll mind?"
"I'm sure he'll be ecstatic. Talking about me?" Miyo asked. "What were they saying?"
"Err." Dhiti came to a sudden stop. "Well—um. Err. You remember what some people were saying about you at school last week? About why you got…you know?"
"Yes," Miyo growled.
"Umm. It was like that, only, well, kind of worse. Anyway, when Mark-chan heard them, apparently he went sort of berserk. I can just see him as a Viking warrior, can't you?"
"Oh, no." Miyo clutched her forehead. "Tell me he didn't."
"Of course he did! That guy's got it for you pretty serious, Hayashi. When he was finished with them, they could hardly walk. You know," she went on thoughtfully, "you have all the luck. You've got your own knight in shining armour, ready to leap to your defence and do battle for your honour at a moment's notice…"
"He can't defend me! He's the one who started the problem in the first place!"
"Well, yes. But that was an accident, you know," Dhiti told her seriously. "He had no idea what had really happened. He was just trying to find out the truth so he could help you somehow—"
"You think I don't know that?"
"—And he's apologised, like, at least twelve thousand times since then. And now he's actually fighting for you. Doesn't that count for something?"
"You idiot!" Miyo burst out. "You have no idea what you're talking about!"
She broke the connection before Dhiti could reply, and sat back on her bed. Her hands were shaking. The immense unfairness of the situation made her want to scream. That Mark should want to defend her—as if he had some kind of claim over her! It made her feel…not angry, somehow, but almost afraid.
At last, unable to stand the silence of her room any longer, she went out into the living room. Itsuko was sitting there, watching the viddy. A news program was showing; Araki Mamiko, the director of 'K' Division, was giving a speech. Itsuko looked up as Miyo came in, saw her expression, and said, "She didn't find anything, did she?"
"No!" Miyo snapped. Itsuko raised her eyebrows at her tone, and maintained a discreet silence. Miyo picked up a paperback romance that she had been reading earlier and began to scan it determinedly.
She was so upset that she quite forgot to call Beth back and tell her that Dhiti hadn't found anything.
The Serenity Council met on Tuesday afternoon. All fifteen members were present. This was rather unusual of late; but then, there were certain topics that could not be discussed at a full meeting. Two of the councillors, Thirteen and Fifteen, had not been initiated by the Master, and they might not approve of some of the Council's less public activities.
It was, the chairman sometimes thought, a pity that they could not initiate the two. Still, there were long-term advantages in leaving a couple of members untouched. It helped the rest of them to keep a more human perspective. After all, whatever else they had become, they were still the government of Japan.
Human perspective could be a relative term, of course. He glanced at Twelve, seated at the table around to his right. She looked perfectly human at the moment; but when the meeting was over, she would drop her mask and become something that few of them, few even of the initiated, could face with equanimity. She was the Hand of the Master on Earth. She was also a reminder of what could happen to the rest of them, if they failed.
As if in answer to his thought, she looked up at him and gave him a friendly, normal smile. He managed to suppress his shudder.
The meeting had been a long one, but strictly routine, concerned with nothing more than the business of government. They debated several shipping regulation changes for 'R' Division. They accepted a request for foreign aid to the Uluru Republic, subject to the Republic's approval of a local 'D' Division listening post (or, as it would officially be known, "embassy"). They listened to a briefing on the expected yields of 'A' Division's new logging belt in Shikoku. They heard a perennial request from the automobile industry to increase electric car ranges. (That one was refused, as usual. If cars could go further, the Council would have to spend a lot more on road maintenance outside the major cities. People who wanted to travel long distances could catch a train.) They did this, they did that…sometimes he wondered what it would be like if all their meetings were this way. If the Council truly was nothing more than the government of Japan.
That was wishful thinking, though. He had a higher duty. One forged in ice and pain far below the surface of the Earth.
"That's all for today," he announced, as the last item on the agenda was finally cleared. "Does anyone have any general business they want to bring up?"
A silence fell around the table. He nodded, and was about to drop his bombshell when Thirteen spoke up. She was a demure-looking middle-aged woman with greying hair, an old-fashioned pair of pince-nez glasses and a razor-sharp mind. "I have a question for Number Three," she said.
Across the table, Three gave her an inquiring look. She fixed him with a piercing stare. "I would like to know," she said slowly, "why 'S' Division is putting enormous resources and a quite incredible amount of time…into looking for a missing cat?"
Two seats away from her, Fifteen sat up suddenly. He was a younger man, with short fair hair. "A cat?" he asked, startled.
"Indeed. A cat." Thirteen looked around the table, frowning. "Judging from your reactions," she went on, "I assume that most of you knew about this already."
Three did not flinch; he simply raised his eyebrows. "It was discussed in one of our meetings several weeks ago," he said calmly. "I believe you were absent at the time. Did you not receive a briefing paper on the subject?"
Thirteen smiled sourly. "'S' Division briefing papers do not, of course, list every active investigation."
"Ah. So they don't."
"So would you care to tell me why you're looking for a cat?" she asked again.
"Wait a minute," said Fifteen, looking at the two intently. "Is this something to do with—" He hesitated, and glanced at the chairman. "I know you asked me not to talk about it openly—"
The chairman sighed, and steepled his gloved fingers on the desk in front of him. Three could carry on being polite and unhelpful almost indefinitely, but there was no point. Thirteen already knew too much; whether he liked it or not, it seemed that there was no hiding the affair now.
Still, he thought, perhaps it was still possible to make the search appear reasonably innocent—
"Very well," he said, drawing the others' attention instantly. "Let's go over this again. Just over a month ago, Number Fifteen observed a—a rather unique creature…"
Fifteen reddened. "I was feeding my own cats," he said, looking embarrassed. "There were a couple of strays in the alley behind the house. I threw them a bit of fish. And—" He shook his head in wonder. "One of them thanked me."
Around the table, the rest of the Council showed surprise—some of them more convincingly than others.
"A black cat?" asked Thirteen sharply. "Or a white one?"
"Neither," he said. "Oh, I know what you're thinking. But it was a tabby cat, and it didn't have a crescent moon on its forehead." He frowned suddenly. "It had a plain white circle instead. I don't know if that means anything or not. I didn't get a clear look at the other cat, I'm afraid."
"All the same…" mused Thirteen. She looked over at Three and said, "You're looking for a moon cat. Correct?"
"Potentially, yes," he admitted, unperturbed. Around the table, Twelve stirred, watching him with hooded eyes, but said nothing.
"Why?" she demanded. "And why in such a clumsy way? You've got agents running around all over Third Tokyo watching cats instead of doing their regular jobs! Do you want to alienate the very people we're trying to contact?"
"It is not," Three said firmly, "quite that bad. The investigation is as restrained as we can make it. May I ask how you learned about it, incidentally?"
She visibly considered not replying. At last she said, "My nephew is one of your Irregular agents. He got a message a few weeks ago, telling him to look out for cats. A couple of days ago, he worked up the nerve to ask me why."
Three frowned. "His name, please? Irregulars are not permitted to disclose that they—"
"I suppose he thought a Council member could be trusted," she said, her tone acid. "Leave him alone, Ryobe. I mean it."
"Your wish is my command," Three answered sardonically, tugging an imaginary forelock. "Nevertheless—"
"Nevertheless," she interrupted, "why are you hunting the cat at all? I'd have thought that the last thing we want to do is annoy the Senshi. For heaven's sake, we just issued them an invitation to come and talk to us!"
"Of course we don't want to alienate them," put in the chairman smoothly. "But bear in mind that the investigation began before the Senshi began to appear. All we had at the time was a possible sighting of a Moon Cat; and of course we wanted to contact it. The directive to 'S' Division was only to find the cat, remember; not to harm it." He caught Three's eye and held it as he added, "In any case, since the Senshi appeared, 'S' Division has been scaling the investigation down quietly."
Three gave a tiny nod of acknowledgement. The investigation would not be scaled down, of course; but he would see to it that it was kept quieter.
Thirteen leaned back in her seat, somewhat mollified but still looking unsatisfied. "Well, that's not so bad, I suppose," she muttered.
Fifteen shook his head, chuckling. "All this fuss, over one cat," he murmured. "It might have been better if I'd never mentioned it to you at all, Number One!"
"Quite." The chairman gave him a thin smile. He sneaked another quick glance at Twelve, but now she was simply listening to the argument, looking interested. Damn her, anyway.
Thirteen and Fifteen appeared satisfied, in any case. That was a minor victory. "Does anybody else have any further business?" he asked with a sigh. This time there were headshakes all around the table. "Good. In that case—"
He opened a folder on the desk in front of him, and pulled out a long, heavy envelope. "I do have one more point. We have received a message from the Senshi. A reply to our offer to speak with them."
Around the table, everyone sat up. Murmurs of consternation filled the air. None of them had expected this. Twelve's eyes blazed with blue light for an instant; thankfully, neither Thirteen nor Fifteen noticed.
"It's difficult to be certain that it's genuine, of course," he went on calmly, opening the envelope and pulling out a single sheet of paper. "But I'm fairly confident that it is. There is a, ahh, seal at the bottom, in wax. Made with the head of a henshin wand, I suspect," he added with a dry smile. "The symbol is for Mars."
"Mars?" muttered Fifteen. "I didn't think Sailor Mars had appeared yet."
"Possibly a new, er, recruit," the chairman suggested. The new Mars had appeared three days before; but that had not been in public, and only Twelve had seen her.
"Odd that a new recruit should be their speaker," murmured Five.
"Never mind that," snapped Nine. "What does the message say?"
"I'll pass it around." The chairman handed the sheet to the councillor on his left. He'd already had both sheet and envelope tested for fingerprints or DNA traces. His people had found nothing, so there was no reason not to handle the message. "Essentially, it says that the Senshi appreciate our offer, but that they don't want to become, hmm, politically involved at this time."
"What? We were offering to help them, not involve them in politics!" burst out Fifteen.
"Is there a difference?" said Thirteen acidly. Fifteen snorted.
"In any case," the chairman interrupted, "they say that they will contact us if they need assistance…but for the moment, they have the situation well in hand, and would like us to, ahh, let them get on with it." He could not restrain a smile as he spoke. Well in hand, indeed!
His smile froze as he accidentally caught Twelve's eye. She held his gaze for an instant, then gave him a single, barely-detectable nod. Her lips parted for an instant, showing her teeth. He swallowed heavily.
Tearing his eyes away, he looked around the rest of the table, studying the others' reactions. Thirteen was the biggest potential problem. The re-appearance of the Senshi did not affect her portfolio, 'A' Division, but she had already noticed that the rest of the Council were keeping things from her. If she made too much of a nuisance of herself, he would have no choice but to initiate her, human perspective or not.
She frowned as he finished speaking; but then, slowly, the frown faded and she began to look thoughtful. The chairman relaxed. Uninitiated or not, Thirteen was still a politician.
The Serenity Council was sworn to govern "in the name of the Queen, until her return." If they chose, the Senshi could present a good case for replacing the Council. True, there was no sign yet that the Queen had returned; but still, things could get awkward. It would be bad publicity. Far better, if they wanted to concentrate on fighting evil instead…
All around the table, the councillors were nodding at the news. "That suits us fine, doesn't it?" said Eight.
"It will help lift a lot of the foreign pressure," noted Two.
"We can afford to let them continue as they are, I suppose?" asked Eleven.
"We'd stand to get lynched if we tried to stop them," said Seven. "Especially after that fire downtown. Hell, let them have their fights. They haven't done any major damage so far—"
"A number of people were hurt at the theatre," contradicted Nine.
Seven waved it off. "That was the monster, not the Senshi. Anyway, there were no fatalities…"
The chairman listened, well content. There had been fatalities at the warehouse on Saturday; but that wasn't public knowledge, and none of his people would bring it up. Instead, all of them were playing their parts to the letter. An outsider, listening in, would have thought that the Council genuinely approved of what the Senshi were doing.
Even Thirteen and Fifteen, who were the only innocent ones there, seemed to be content. "They do seem to have better quick-response capabilities than 'P' Division," Thirteen was saying. "Of course, we should continue to monitor the situation…"
"Perhaps we should consider briefing 'P' Division to keep people clear when they're in action," added Fifteen. "Look at the way they were mobbed after that fire…"
The chairman smiled to himself. The Senshi had responded as he had hoped. Now the public would be satisfied, international pressure would ease, and he and the Council would have all the time they needed to push those silly girls into doing what they were supposed to do.
For a moment he felt a twinge of alarm, thinking of what the future would be like once that happened. Then, with the ease of long practise, he shrugged it off. Let the future take care of itself. That was the only way to stay sane…
"What was bothering Miyo so much last night?" asked Artemis. "I said 'Good evening' to her and I thought she'd bite my head off."
"I'm not sure. She had a lead on Lady Blue that didn't pan out, but I think this is something different," said Itsuko calmly. "My guess is it's something to do with that boy at school. Hmm, how's this look?"
Artemis stared thoughtfully. "It's a little…daring, don't you think?" he said at last. "If it slips, people will be able to see everything."
Itsuko looked down, reconsidering. "I suppose so," she said reluctantly. "I just thought it looked…You're sure?"
"Quite sure," he told her firmly. "Try something a little less transparent. What about this boy at school? You mean Mark?"
"Mm. First romance is always tough. And the topic's a little too, ahh, distant in her other two lives to give her much perspective this time around. Perfect memory or not."
"Plus she's sixteen again, with the hormones to match."
Itsuko sighed. "Well…yes. Also, she's scared to like him too much because she thinks he's Mamoru reborn. And she might be right…I wish you'd agree to check him out."
"Itsuko, you know why I don't want to do that. What if he does turn out to be Mamoru? Do you really want to awaken his memories—and then have to tell him that Usagi's dead?"
She shuddered. "Not me. I'm just afraid that, sooner or later…we might need him." She shook her head, and looked down again. "What about this, then?" she asked presently. "Any improvement?"
Artemis looked it over. "Better," he said grudgingly. "But still too risky for my liking. One false move, and it'll all be out in the open. Face it, Itsuko. This just isn't going to work."
"Well, you suggest something then!" she snapped, slamming a fist on the pile of sketch-plans on the table in front of them. "I'm out of ideas. How are we supposed to hold a general Senshi training session, let them all really cut loose with their powers, without anyone noticing?"
"I don't know either!" he grumbled in return. "But the Olympus is just too risky. If it comes to that, anywhere in town is going to be dangerous. Look at what happened at that warehouse."
"Oh, I suppose so. But if nowhere in town's going to be safe—" She paused, looking suddenly thoughtful. "Wait a minute. What if we went out of the city entirely?"
"Like where? A town car won't do more than a couple of hundred kilometres before the battery's dead. That doesn't get you very far."
"Well, it does cover quite a bit of territory, actually," she said dryly. "But forget that. What if I could get hold of a long-range vehicle?"
Artemis gave her a skeptical look. "Long-range licenses are pretty hard to come by in the city," he pointed out. "Where would you get one?"
"Well…it's not in my name. But—" She made an impatient gesture. "You know I have underworld contacts. I have to get new identity papers from time to time, apart from anything else. And, um…" She coughed into her fist, abruptly reluctant to meet his eyes. "I, er, kind of do a little smuggling, now and then. Just to keep my hand in."
He stared at her, open-mouthed. "Why, Hino Rei," he said in a mock-admiring tone. "You're a wanted criminal!"
"Don't be absurd," she sniffed. "I'm not wanted; nobody in authority knows a thing about me." She shrugged. "But I do have transport. Alcohol engine; I could take us anywhere in Honshu if need be."
Artemis nodded, still taking it in. "I assume you have somewhere in mind?" he inquired.
"Well—there's a nice spot I know, a couple of hours out of Third Tokyo…"
Miyo overslept on Wednesday morning, something she hadn't done in a long time. By the time Itsuko roused her, it was too late for breakfast. She ran out of the Olympus building with a piece of toast in her mouth, still buttoning up her jacket.
She reached school just seconds before the bell rang. She slipped through the gates and hurried into the building, panting—pausing for a second to wave to a surprised Kin and Dhiti, who had been hanging around waiting for her.
(Dhiti had still not said anything about their near-argument on Monday night. Maybe the girl had finally learned tact. But Miyo doubted it. Sooner or later, she would find a way to embarrass Miyo with the scene. In a perverse kind of way, Miyo almost looked forward to it.)
She was on time for class, just barely. That should have been the end of it. But the morning's classes dragged like molasses, and she found herself thinking about her new life. Her new home. If she could call it that.
Oversleeping on a school morning was bad enough; but Itsuko had had to catch her at it. She flushed, remembering. Somehow, being woken by a friend was far more humiliating than being woken by her mother.
Well, it seemed that she would have to get used to it. Settling into the suite at the top of the Olympus building had been a whole series of awkward experiences. It was a little like her past life, when her parents had died and she had had to survive on her own; but this time she was trying to adjust to a new life with someone who knew her almost as well as she knew herself. She'd thought that it would be a simple thing, but instead, the opportunities for awkwardness and embarrassment were almost unlimited.
Reaching an agreement on sharing a bathroom; making a roster for laundry, cleaning and other chores; those were the tip of the iceberg. She also had to share her room, one night a week, with Ochiyo, the Olympus' part-time receptionist, whom Itsuko allowed to sleep over when the girl had a late shift. Neither of them knew what to say to each other (Ochiyo was obviously bursting with curiosity about Miyo, but didn't seem to dare to ask), so those nights were rather strained.
The worst thing so far had been the time last week, when she'd had to go to Itsuko, shame-faced, and ask for an allowance.
Now that had been an awkward situation: begging a friend for money. She hadn't thought about it when she'd asked Itsuko to take her in; but now she had to face the reality. For the next few years, until she finished college and maybe for a while afterward, she was going to be dependent on Itsuko for food, clothing…everything. Unless she could find a way to make her family take her back—
She quashed the thought, knowing where it led, and tried to concentrate on what the teacher was saying. It didn't work for very long. She found herself thinking about money again. Maybe if she could get a job? After all, Ochiyo worked part-time at the Olympus. But Miyo wouldn't want to work at the gym herself; it would be, well, too close to home, as it were.
Then she realised that she couldn't afford to get a job at all; not if she wanted to be free to run out to fight vitrimorphs, she couldn't. She was stuck. She felt like a…a kept woman. No, that was ridiculous. She really felt as if she had exchanged one family for another. For Itsuko. But that was ridiculous too, wasn't it?
She sighed and tried to pay attention as the teacher talked about second derivatives. It was a very long morning.
Thank the gods for friends.
Dhiti and Kin intercepted her as she went outside for lunch. Before she could escape, they had her cornered. She put up a token fight; then, with an inner sigh that was equal parts resignation and relief, she let them sweep her away.
"So, where were you this morning?" demanded Kin.
"I overslept," Miyo answered innocently. She knew it was not going to work, but that was part of the game.
"You? Overslept?" Dhiti shook her head sadly. In a bizarre accent she went on, "Vhy do you persist in zese foolish games, Fräulein Hayashi? You know ve haf vays of making you talk. Zo, I ask vun more time: vhere vere you?"
"Off on some steamy early-morning romantic interlude?" suggested Kin, rather spoiling the effect.
Miyo looked pained. "Will you cut it out?" she said. "You guys go into this act every time I—"
"Ahh, I can see it now," Dhiti said, dropping her accent and fluttering her eyelashes madly. "'Oh, Mark, Mark,' she moans passionately, 'you're everything I've always dreamed of. Oh, my noble warrior…make me…a woman.' And he takes her in his arms and—"
"Okay," said Miyo. "I take it back. You don't do this every time."
"Will you pipe down?" complained Dhiti. "I was just getting warmed up."
Kin snorted. "Steamed up, more like it."
"What?" Dhiti blinked, then suddenly flushed. "And people say I have a dirty mind," she said, shaking her head sadly.
Miyo had to grin. "I don't know about dirty," she commented. "Slightly twisted, maybe."
The dark-skinned girl smiled. "You say the sweetest things, Hayashi," she cooed. With a sly glance at Miyo, she added, "I notice you don't deny the fantasies about your noble warrior, though."
"I—" Miyo hastily suppressed her first reaction, which called for extreme violence, and fixed Dhiti with a frosty glare. "I am not talking about Mark," she stated. "I am not even thinking about Mark."
"Hmmm." Kin studied her through narrowed eyes. Then she looked over at Dhiti. "What do you think?" she asked, barely concealing a smirk. "Is she telling the truth or not?"
"Well, I'm not sure." There was an impish light in Dhiti's eyes. "You know, if I were Sailor Mercury, I could just whip out my computer and check." She mimed waving a device in Miyo's direction and intoned, "Credibility rating: negligible."
"Yeah, true," said Kin, grinning. "And if I were, uh, Sailor Moon, I could fire one of my Crescent Heart Whatsits at the two of them and make them fall madly in love and live happily ever after!"
Miyo suppressed several more reactions and said, "Yes, and if I were Sailor Pluto, maybe I could speed time up so you two would grow up a little."
Dhiti shot her a wounded look. "Now, that wasn't nice. Was that nice?" she asked Kin.
"Not nice at all," Kin judged.
"We need to do something about this."
"Hmm. Bucket of water over her head?"
"Neither of us is tall enough," Kin pointed out. "Drop a slug down her back?"
"No, she likes slugs. Hmm, let me see—"
Miyo groaned. "Dhiti-chan, am I going to tell you again to lay off the slug jokes?"
"Do you know, I think you are?"
"Look, will you—"
"I've got it!" Kin shouted. "The perfect revenge!"
"Ooh, tell me more," simpered Dhiti. Miyo clutched her head in pain.
"It's very simple, and at the same time fiendishly appropriate," Kin gloated. "Observe…"
She jumped up in the air, waving an arm at somebody on the other side of the grounds, and shouted, "Hey, Wright-kun! Mark! Over here!"
Some distance off, Mark and Liam were lounging against the wall, talking. At Kin's shout, Mark turned his head. When he caught sight of the threesome, he grinned and started toward them.
Miyo flinched. "You traitor!" she hissed. "Okay, that does it, I've had—"
"Grab her!" shouted Dhiti. She and Kin leaped on Miyo, wrestling her to the ground. For an instant Miyo struggled, almost breaking free; then, with a sigh of resignation, she gave in and relaxed. If she just kept her head, she could get through this. There was a kind of sense of inevitability about it.
Thank the gods for friends.
"Kin-chan, that was brilliant," Dhiti rambled on, oblivious. "Why didn't I think of that?"
"Well, I am the smart one of us three," Kin said modestly.
"You are?" asked Dhiti in well-feigned surprise.
"Sure. You just think you are because I broke into the school records and switched our IQ test results."
"Oh." Dhiti thought about it. "Well, all right, then. But I'll tell you, if you switched Hayashi's too, so I'm actually the dumbest one of us, I'm going to be very upset with you."
"My lips are sealed," Kin assured her.
"Hey!" Miyo protested. "Are you saying I'm the dumbest one of us?"
There was a slight pause. Then Dhiti said, "So, Kin-chan, how was your weekend?"
"Oh, not bad—"
"Hey!" said Miyo again. "I said—"
"—Though I was trying to get hold of you all Sunday, and your mother kept saying she didn't know where you were."
"Hmm," Dhiti said. "I was out studying some…ancient history. Kind of a private project."
"Oh." Kin frowned for an instant, and said, "And I suppose Miyo-chan was off on a mad, passionate date with Mark-kun all day?"
Dhiti raised her eyebrows. "What a fascinating idea. Hayashi, were you out on a—well, perhaps not," she murmured, seeing Miyo's expression. "Anyway," she went on to Kin, "if you wanted to know about her and Mark-chan, couldn't you have just asked Liam-kun…while you were out on your mad, passionate date?"
She and Miyo watched with delight as Kin turned bright scarlet. The girl was spared having to answer, however, as Mark finally ambled up.
"Hel-lo," he said, studying the pile of bodies with interest. "Is this some kind of weird threesome?"
Dhiti eeped. "No!" she said, trying to scramble off Miyo.
"Yes!" shouted Kin at the same time, grinning wickedly and holding her back down.
"Just get off me," mumbled Miyo from the bottom of the pile. Her face was now wedged into Dhiti's chest and it was difficult to breathe.
"Your wish is my command," answered Mark cheerfully. Before she could say that she hadn't been talking to him, she heard a startled squawk from Kin, and the weight on top of her lessened. Dhiti vanished a moment later, and she was staring up at a face that she emphatically did not want to have to deal with.
He raised his eyebrows, and she suddenly realised how she must look, lying there. Cheeks flaming, she scrambled to her feet, ignoring the hand he offered to help her up.
They stood staring at each other. He was only a fraction taller than her, she realised. The moment seemed to stretch, and she felt a sudden wild hope that, somehow, this might not go wrong.
Then he smiled, and the possibility was gone. She saw his face; her father's face; the faces of the students that mocked her. A sea of eyes, watching her wherever she went. The laughter, and the taunts. Friends who suddenly would not acknowledge her. Mark's innocent smile, and his oh-so-innocent questions that drew it all down upon her.
Her good humour of seconds before was utterly gone, swept away by a tide of resentment. The hopeful look on his face only made it worse. With a sense of inevitability, she knew that this moment had been approaching for some time.
"Well?" she demanded.
His smile faded. "Well what?" he said. "Hey, they called me, remember?"
"Oh, and I'm sure you just came over to talk to Dhiti-chan and Kin-chan."
"Miyo-san…" He took a deep breath, visibly composing his reply. "I have apologised," he said. "Frequently."
"Maybe I don't want your apologies," she retorted. "Why can't you just go away? Or find someone else to beat up?" she added nastily.
Finally, there was a glint of anger in his eyes. "That's a little harsh, don't you think?" he said, his voice tight.
"Why should I care? Damn you, I never asked you to defend me!"
"Maybe I wanted to defend you."
"And what gives you the right?" she shouted. "You don't own me! This has got nothing to do with you!"
"Oh?" He was breathing quickly; his cheeks were pale. "I'd say it has everything to do with me."
"With you?" It was too much. Her temper finally snapped. She lashed out blindly, catching him on the left shoulder, and heard his grunt of pain. Her other fist aimed itself directly at his face—
And came to a sudden halt, caught in his right hand.
Again, they stared at each other. They were almost nose to nose now. "Just…go away," she whispered. "Leave me alone, can't you?"
"How?" he asked. His voice cracked in mid-word. "How?"
"Give me space," she asked. Her fist slipped from his hand, dropped to her side. Behind him, she could see Kin and Dhiti watching them, wide-eyed. "Let me breathe. Please."
She saw the unwilling acceptance in his face. Before he could say anything more she spun around and started away from the other three, moving fast, almost running, toward the school building.
She looked back, a second later. Kin and Dhiti were following her.
Thank the gods for friends.
Finally, at the end of a long, slow afternoon, Miyo trudged toward the school gates. She had slept late that morning, but somehow she still felt exhausted. She longed for nothing more than to get home, have a hot bath, and take a nap for a couple of hours before she had to make dinner. And absolutely, definitely not think of Mark.
She sighed, and determinedly pushed the thought aside. Life was just too complicated sometimes. Maybe she should talk to Itsuko about it; after all, she'd had to deal with Yuuichiro, long ago. But somehow, the idea of talking to Itsuko about men made her want to cringe.
Thank goodness the day was over at last, and she could walk home and lie down and maybe forget about things for a while…
Naturally, Dhiti was waiting for her at the gate. Miyo stifled a groan and watched as a little winged picture of a bed flew past in her mind's eye.
"That was quite a scene at lunch-time," Dhiti said cheerfully, falling in step with her. "Give us some warning next time, though, huh? I think Kin-chan wants to sell tickets."
"Aargh." Miyo tried not to think about it.
"Are you okay, Hayashi? You've been looking kind of…ragged all day." Dhiti herself looked in the peak of health. Naturally. "Look, don't let Mark-chan get to you. Do something to take your mind off it. Hey, I saw a poster for a hang-gliding club a couple of days ago. I'm thinking of joining that, maybe you should give it a try too—"
"I do not," Miyo said with great restraint, "want to join a hang-gliding club." As a matter of fact, eight hundred years ago she had gone hang-gliding in the Pyrenees; but if she mentioned that she'd never hear the end of it.
"…Right." Dhiti walked in silence for a few moments. Then, in quite a different tone of voice, she said, "Look, why not just come downtown with me? I need to get some new running shoes. Maybe we could find some more of those godawful romances you read all the time…"
Miyo shook her head; but she had to smile. "Maybe some other time," she said wryly. "I have to watch my money."
"Oh? I could lend you something—"
"Hah! I don't know which would be worse: owing you or Itsuko."
"Itsuko-san?" Dhiti looked startled. "I hadn't thought of that. You mean, you have to—"
"Yeah, well." Miyo gave a resigned shrug. "I don't exactly have a lot to my name any more. Not even a name, really, if it comes to that. Itsuko managed to get a few of my clothes before my father threw her out of the house, but not much else."
Dhiti whistled idly between her teeth. "Not a lot, huh?" She seemed to be on the point of saying something more, but then caught herself. "Look, come on downtown anyway. At least I can buy you an ice cream, or something."
"Oh, sure. You mean I get one ice cream, and then I have to sit and watch while you have three, right?"
"Something like that." Dhiti smirked. "So, you coming?"
Thank the gods…
That evening Beth's patience, and her nerves, finally wore out. Miyo had promised to investigate the deaths at the warehouse, but since then Beth had heard nothing. Quite apart from any other consideration, the tension was killing her.
When she tried Miyo's communicator, though, there was no reply. She tried several times, just to be sure. At last, seriously worried, she asked Bendis for advice.
"Are you sure?" the cat asked, staring at the communicator dubiously. "Miyo-san's pretty experienced, remember. She wouldn't just take her communicator off and forget about it."
"I told you," Beth said impatiently, "I tried it three times already. Anyway," she sniffed, "I don't know what's so great about all that 'experience' of hers. She isn't any better than the rest of us. I bet if I tried, I could wrap her up in my Chain Thing before she twitched."
"Sure, sure," the cat soothed her. "You're ten times better than her, and nothing gets past you at all. Of course," she added casually, "she did have to bail you out at the warehouse the other day…"
"That was a fluke! The next time I see Lady Blue I'll hit her so hard she'll be—"
"You will? Don't you mean Sailor Venus?"
Beth hesitated. "Well…it's the same thing, isn't it? More or less," she said uncertainly. "Anyway, that's beside the point—"
"And keep your voice down, will you? Your mother's in the living room. Sometimes I think you want people to work out who you are."
"Oh, now you're just being silly. I mean—look, never mind that! What are we going to do about Miyo-san? Maybe there's something wrong!"
"Don't get over-excited," Bendis urged her. "Calm down and try it again."
Beth did so. There was still no reply.
Some distance away, in the Olympus building, Hayashi Miyo stepped into the bath with a sigh of pure pleasure. Itsuko was downstairs, leading an aerobics class. Ochiyo wasn't due up until later. She was alone in the apartment for at least an hour. At last, she could relax.
It had been an exhausting day. All that business at school, and then a whirlwind tour of the local shopping district with Dhiti, had left her feeling as if she hadn't slept for a week. Now, finally, she had some time to herself.
The hot water on her skin was delicious. She lay back and closed her eyes with a happy smile.
In her bedroom, lying on her little chest of drawers, her communicator started to bleep again. Miyo never heard a thing.
"Still nothing," Beth said unnecessarily. "Are you sure this thing couldn't just be worn out, Bendis-chan?"
Bendis shook her head, and nosed the device gently. "They were made back at the founding of the Silver Millennium," she mused. "Weland himself is supposed to have designed them, and he was magewright to Serenity the First—"
Beth held the communicator up to her ear and shook it. Bendis gave up and closed her mouth.
"You know," the girl said slowly, "Lady Blue knows all about that warehouse. Last Saturday, she had an ambush set up for us. If Miyo went back there on Monday night…"
"…She might have been walking into a trap?" Bendis finished. She frowned. "But Beth-chan, that was two days ago. Surely—"
"You're right!" Beth exclaimed, wide-eyed. "Anything could have happened to her by now! Bendis, we have to do something! We have to save her!"
"That wasn't what I meant," Bendis muttered. She could have shouted it, but she was pretty sure that it wouldn't have done any good. Beth was already stabbing at her communicator again.
This time she got a response. "Iku-chan?" she burst out. "Miyo-san's in trouble! You've got to meet us at the warehouse, as soon as possible!"
"…Warehouse?" came an uncertain voice in reply.
"You know, the place where we were on Saturday! Hurry!" Beth broke the connection without further ado. She paused, her finger on the button to make another call. "Oh, what was her name? Shizu…Sazae…"
"Suzue?" suggested Bendis diffidently. She was beginning to enjoy the spectacle of Beth trying to take charge.
"Yes!" Beth stabbed at the button. When a surprised voice answered, she gabbled out, "Hello, Beth-san? It's Suzue-chan. Listen, we—no, wait, you're not Beth, I'm Uranus. No, Venus! Wait, I—" She floundered to a halt. "Well, you know who I am!" she snapped at last.
"Um. Possibly," said Suzue dryly.
"Anyway, Miyo-chan's in trouble! Can you meet us at the warehouse as soon as possible? The place from Saturday—"
"On my way," Suzue answered. The communicator fell silent. Beth blinked at it.
"Nicely done," Bendis commented smoothly. "Now Dhiti-san, I suppose?"
Beth's face tautened with resolution. "No time!" she shouted. "We have to hurry! VENUS POWER, MAKE-UP!"
Dancing light filled the room. Before Bendis could quite see again, she felt a pair of hands pick her up; and moments later, she found herself flying swiftly through cool evening air. In a flash of surprise, she realised that Venus must have made a standing jump out of her bedroom window, all without using her hands for balance or to steady herself. It was quite an impressive move, especially considering that she didn't remember Venus practising it before.
The last of the afterimages faded from her eyes, and she saw that they were bouncing across the rooftops. Venus ran at a steady, even pace, her feet touching down on each roof lightly, unerringly and almost soundlessly. Her breathing was slow and regular. If it had not been for the rush of cold air in her fur, whiskers and ears, Bendis could have sworn that they were not moving at all. She felt…safe.
After a little, she said experimentally, "Why not Dhiti-san?"
"Oh." Venus sounded evasive. "Well…we don't need her, do we? I mean, three Senshi should be enough to handle it, right?"
"Besides," Venus muttered, "she's…you know. Sort of weird."
Bendis opened her mouth to make a sarcastic reply, and then closed it again with a mental sigh. What would be the point?
She did not for a moment believe that Miyo was in trouble, but this excursion would make a good impromptu training exercise for the girls. Without Artemis around, even. It would be handy to see how the other two reacted to the emergency callout; and it would give her a chance to evaluate Sailor Uranus, and try to work on Mars' attitude a bit. All in all, not a bad way to spend an evening.
And of course, if there actually was any trouble, then Venus was probably right; three Senshi should be able to handle it. Besides, it occurred to her that these particular three were the Senshi that Bendis herself had found. If anything did happen, it would be a triumphant vindication of her skills. What could possibly go wrong? Either way, she won.
"Absolutely," she answered firmly.
Venus and Uranus arrived at the warehouse at about the same time. Venus motioned for the other Senshi to take cover in a sheltered spot, and Uranus obeyed, looking a little puzzled.
Sailor Mars ran up a few minutes later, panting. Venus made a mental note to teach her roof-hopping as soon as possible, and immediately forgot about it again. She poked her head out from behind a rusting iron boiler and beckoned the girl over.
"What's happened?" asked Uranus, joining them. "You said there was some kind of trouble, but everything seems quiet."
In a hushed voice, Venus quickly told them about the bodies. "And when I called obaasan about it, I mean Jupiter, she said she wanted to get Sailor Mercury to check the place out," she finished. "But she never called back! And now there's no answer on the communicator!"
Uranus' eyes narrowed. "You think there was another trap?" she asked. "Something left over from the weekend?"
"Right!" Venus hissed excitedly. "They must have walked right into it! And now Lady Blue's probably just waiting for us, too! I mean, just look at this place! It's too quiet!"
The three girls looked around the yard: a broad, open area between a group of abandoned warehouses, littered with junk and the rusting hulks of abandoned industrial equipment. In the fading light, it did look sinister.
"So what do we do?" asked Mars nervously.
"We move in," Venus announced. "Try and stick to cover, and keep in contact at all times. If you find anything, don't try to attack by yourself. Call for help. If this thing was strong enough to take out Jupiter and Mercury, we can't take any chances. Ready?"
Uranus gave a brisk nod. Mars only stared at her, looking appalled. Then the Senshi of Fire visibly caught hold of herself; she steadied, and a kind of shaky determination appeared in her face. She, too, nodded.
The three moved in.
Behind them, Bendis kept her silence with some difficulty. Venus had forgotten, she noticed, to tell the others it had been two days since she'd spoken to Miyo. And why on earth did she think that Mercury was caught in the trap too, when she herself had decided not to call Mercury just a few minutes before?
Still, her plan of attack was actually a good one. Intrigued, and beginning to enjoy herself tremendously, Bendis followed them into the warehouse yard. Nobody stuck to cover like a cat.
Just in case, she kept an eye open for traps.
Sailor Uranus crept through the yard, keeping low and wishing that her Senshi uniform didn't have quite so much white in it. Even in this half-light, she must stick out like a sore thumb.
(Whoever had designed it, she decided—not for the first time—must have been more concerned with appearances than practicality. And he had definitely been a man.)
The warehouse yard seemed totally silent. The only thing she could hear was the sound of her own breathing, slow and regular. She paused in thought. Should there have been birds singing, at this hour? She could not remember.
She reached the base of a rusting crane and drew herself up slowly to peer through the ribbing of its lowered arm. As she did so, there was a sudden faint clatter, directly above her. She recoiled, automatically raising an arm to launch her attack.
The words died on her lips, stillborn. Sailor Venus was standing on top of the crane, looking down at her.
"Sorry," Venus said in a low voice. Even with Uranus' enhanced eyesight she could barely make out the other girl's face, but she didn't think she looked sorry at all. "Didn't know you were there."
Uranus stared up at her. "What are you doing?" she asked.
Venus threw her a sly wink. "Aerial reconnaissance," she said. Then, before Uranus' stunned eyes, she bent down into an odd half-crouch, lifting her hindquarters into the air—for all the world like a giant cat—and sprang from the crane, leaping high into the air. Uranus could just see her catch a protruding iron bar some distance away, twirl around it once like a gymnast, and then flip herself into the air again. A moment later, she had vanished into the gloom.
Uranus dropped flat on the ground, wincing and waiting for the crash. Instead, there was only silence.
I didn't just see that, she decided.
"She's pretty good, isn't she?" said a voice at her elbow. Uranus stifled a yelp. This time it was Bendis.
She stared at the cat for a few seconds, trying to put words to the moment. At last she asked, "Is that girl crazy?"
"Quite possibly," Bendis answered cheerfully. "I'm very proud of her." Then, before Uranus could react, she went on, "You're moving too slowly. I'm going to have to do something about your training."
Uranus considered this for some time. "I thought the idea was to keep quiet," she hissed back.
"That doesn't mean go slowly," Bendis said didactically. "Venus wasn't making any noise, was she?"
"No," Uranus protested, "but she was—"
"Look, it's perfectly simple. Just think like a cat. How hard can that be?" Before she could answer, Bendis turned and vanished into the darkness. Silently.
Uranus sat for a minute, looking after the cat. She was, she thought, beginning to get an idea of why Venus acted the way she did.
Still, Bendis was right about one thing: she was moving too slowly. Uranus got up and, keeping very low, began to make her way forward once more.
Sailor Mars crept through the warehouse yard, ghosting her way almost invisibly from shadow to shadow. Even her uniform, bright white and red, somehow seemed to blend into the darkness. Bendis, prowling around the yard in search of her, missed her completely. If there was one thing that Kodama Iku was very good at, it was avoiding attention.
She was still not certain what she was meant to be doing here, or why the others thought that she could help; but one thing had been very clear in Venus' hurried briefing. Miyo and Dhiti were in danger. And both of them had been…kind to her.
One of the buildings up ahead was covered with 'P' Division tape. Mars looked at it for some time, swallowed, then steeled herself and made her way cautiously to the nearest window. After a quick, nervous glance around, she made to stand and look inside.
At the last moment, her courage failed her. Venus had mentioned bodies.
She sank back in the shadows, shaking. Then, with a little gasp, almost inaudible in the gloom, she choked the fear back. Miyo and Dhiti needed her help.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and began to move once more, making her way around toward the rear of the building. Maybe…maybe there would be something useful she could do there. Something.
Gradually, as she slunk onward, she became aware that there was a sound coming from somewhere: faint, almost at the border of imagination, a deep bass humming. She turned her head, trying to locate it. It seemed familiar somehow.
As she rounded the corner of the building, a sudden wash of multicoloured light filled her eyes.
Venus leaped down from the roof, landing soundlessly on the dirty concrete below. She looked around quickly, saw nothing suspicious, grinned, and ducked into a patch of shadow to give herself time to think.
She had covered most of the yard now. In the fading twilight, it had been quite a challenge, and she had had marvellous fun doing it. She had given Uranus a very satisfactory fright, and had spied on the girl several times since, unseen. She had even managed to sneak up on Bendis once or twice. She hadn't found Mars yet, but she was sure that it was only a matter of time. It was the best game she'd played in ages; she would have to remember to do this again.
Something about that thought bothered at her, and after a moment she remembered what. She wasn't here to play games; she was here to save Jupiter and Mercury. Pity. Still, that was almost as good, and at least she could be pretty sure that there were no traps in the yard. Definitely not up on the roofs, anyway.
That left inside the buildings. Her grin faded, replaced by a more thoughtful look as she remembered the last time she'd had to break into a building. All right, then; time to be serious. Now, she was a hero on an important mission. It was time to play the Responsible Leader.
Backup. She didn't want to face Lady Blue alone again if she could help it. She touched her communicator, and after a second Uranus answered. "What is it?" the girl said tersely.
"I don't think there's anything out here in the yard," Venus whispered. "It'd make more sense for them to be held inside anyway. Can you meet me at the building where they found the bodies?"
"Right. I haven't found anything either," Uranus said. Then, almost immediately, she said, "Hold on. The enemy wouldn't still be using that building, surely? They'd pick a less obvious one."
Venus considered this. Logically, it made sense. Dramatically, it was obviously impossible. "Er. I don't think so," she answered, thinking fast. "It's not just the bodies, remember. There were all those photographs of me, too. That might mean that somebody wanted to draw attention there."
"Which means the trap was probably in that room," Uranus replied. "Good point. I'll meet you there."
She broke contact sharply. Venus sat blinking at her suddenly-dead communicator, then shrugged. It really had been a good point, after all. She just wished she had thought of it sooner.
She stood up and ran lightly through the yard toward the building with the 'P' Division markers. Uranus was waiting for her. The other Senshi indicated the door with a meaningful gesture. Venus looked and saw for the first time that it was standing slightly open.
The two Senshi exchanged glances. This was an invitation.
"What do you think?" asked Venus in a whisper. "Take them by surprise? I'll go in first; you cover me."
Uranus hesitated; then, reluctantly, she nodded.
Venus stepped back from the door and took two or three quick breaths. She could not help grinning with anticipation. Then she tensed herself, filled her lungs, and charged.
She hit the door with her shoulder, bursting it open, and dove forward in a roll. (Not a cat-manoeuvre; she had seen this one in an old movie.) An instant later she was on her feet again, hands raised, ready to strike at the first enemy to show himself.
She looked around, puzzled but still alert. It was very dark inside, but her eyesight was much better as a Senshi. The room was nearly empty. There was an old wooden table with a couple of chairs in one corner. The floor was covered with police markers. That was all.
Uranus joined her, glancing around the room quickly. "Nothing here?" she asked in a low whisper.
"No," Venus admitted. "I was so sure—"
"Wait, what's this?" Uranus knelt down, examining a small box attached to one wall. She had to close the door to get to it. "Some kind of alarm," she announced after a moment. "It's switched off. Just as well, or we'd be having company—"
Their communicators bleeped.
Venus looked down at her wrist, startled, and tapped at the control to activate it. "Hello—?" she began.
Mars' face appeared on the tiny screen. She looked terrified. "Venus-san, Uranus-san!" she blurted out. "Watch out! They're here at the back of the building! They have an—"
Her voice choked off suddenly. Horrified, Venus saw an arm loop around her neck. Then the transmission was cut.
There was a thunderous rattle at the door. As they turned, shocked, it began to swing open.
"A girl dressed as what?" Iwahashi Toru stared incredulously. This was the last thing he'd expected, and the kami knew he'd been expecting just about every other kind of problem.
"A Sailor Senshi," Mitsuzuka repeated. "Sailor Mars, I think."
"Oh, wonderful." Iwahashi ran a hand over his face, and resisted an impulse to scream. This could not be happening. He was a very junior 'M' Division manager, and this was the first time he'd ever been put in command of anything. It was turning out to be even worse than he'd expected.
"She…she isn't for real, is she?" he quavered.
Mitsuzuka kept his face tactfully blank. "I doubt it," he said. "She didn't try to put up any kind of fight at all. She was playing with her wristwatch when we caught her." He shook his head in mild distaste. "Besides," he added, "there isn't a new Sailor Mars yet anyway." From his tone, that was conclusive evidence.
Iwahashi dithered, trying to decide what to do. This assignment had looked so simple and straightforward back at the office. Just take an Opal out to an abandoned warehouse and remove a burglar alarm. What could be easier?
There were odd aspects to the job, true. They were supposed to do it in the middle of the night, for some inane reason. Iwahashi, flushed with the excitement of his first command, had corrected the mistake and substituted a more rational hour. He was beginning to wonder if that had been such a good idea.
Also, the order sheet said that they were to remove any sign that the alarm had ever been there. It was true that 'M' Division did do some technical work for the security agencies (some of the wags liked to call them 'Q' Division, though Iwahashi had never understood why), but…an alarm at an abandoned warehouse? This was ridiculous.
Then there was the note stressing that the work must be carried out secretly, with no possible link back to 'M' Division. (Whatever that was supposed to mean.) And the order was signed "Araki". Iwahashi had had a bad moment when he'd read that name; but then he'd thought better of it. What would Number Twelve of the Serenity Council have to do with an abandoned warehouse? It was bound to be someone else with the same name.
All the same…
He sighed once more and rubbed his eyes. The situation felt almost as if he were involved in some kind of crime, and a real Senshi had just caught him.
"Did she see the other two men?" he asked plaintively.
"No. They've gone around to get the alarm. It shouldn't take long, they ought to be back in a few minutes."
"Thank goodness for that, at least." Iwahashi massaged his forehead. He was beginning to get a headache. "Now, what are we supposed to do about the girl?"
Mitsuzuka cleared his throat and Iwahashi looked up, surprised. "Just a thought," Mitsuzuka said, "but if we aren't supposed to let anyone know what we're doing here, then…suppose we give her something else to think about…?"
A brilliant light shone into the room, dazzling Venus and Uranus. Through the glare, they could just make out two men standing in the doorway. One of them was shining a powerful torch right into their eyes. The other carried a large, bulky bundle—doubtless a weapon of some kind.
The two groups, the Senshi and the attackers, stared at each other for a long, frozen moment. It would have been hard to say which of them was the more startled.
Then Venus let out a wild yell and charged.
The lead man had just enough time to let out a yip of surprise before she bowled him over, sending the torch flying. It hit the far wall with a tinkle of broken glass and went out. The room was plunged into darkness once more.
Uranus kept her head. When the light vanished, she ducked quickly to one side and kept low, waiting for the spots to clear from her eyes. She heard yells, then a crash. The man Venus had hit was shouting something about burglars. Venus was shouting about vitrimorphs.
Something was beginning to feel wrong about this whole situation.
Iwahashi stepped out of the Opal, Mitsuzuka following behind him, and strode up to the man who was holding the would-be Sailor Mars. He looked the girl over confidently.
The confidence wasn't hard to come by. She seemed totally cowed by the attention. A skinny, frightened-looking thing; he was surprised that she'd ever had the nerve to put the Senshi costume on.
"So!" he said sternly. She winced away from him in a very gratifying way. "The Senshi want to interfere in our operation, do they? You will live to regret that decision!"
She stared up at him, wide-eyed and frozen, but did not speak.
He tried again. "Or perhaps not," he hissed. "After all, we cannot let you live to tell the tale, can we? Perhaps I ought to…make an example of you." With some difficulty, he resisted a bizarre impulse to add, "Harharhar!"
White-faced, plainly terrified, she licked her lips. "But," she whispered almost inaudibly, "but…you have an Opal. I thought you were the police…"
"The police?" he sneered, getting even further into the act. "Ha! Of course not! We are merely—"
"'M' Division," she whispered.
"What?" Iwahashi followed her gaze, and saw the division logo on his jacket. He cleared his throat hurriedly and said, "'M' Division? Ha! Of course not! We are merely in disguise." He gave her a threatening leer. "And I see that you have fallen into our trap, little Senshi!"
Her mouth worked soundlessly.
"We are the Sankaku Clans," he told her in a villainous rasp, "and you can never hope to defeat us! Why," he added, improvising wildly, "we have another two of you prisoner already! Harharhar!"
"Then it's true," she whispered. "Jupiter and Mercury…"
"Of course!" he crowed, wondering what she was talking about. "You!" he barked to the man holding her. "Put her on board the Opal, with her team-mates. Or—no! On second thought…" He made a dramatic gesture and said grandly, "Let her stay here, and watch the capture and execution of her friends!"
She sank to her knees, shaking, with tears welling up in her eyes. Iwahashi noted this with great satisfaction and took the opportunity to lean forward and whisper to the man holding her, "When she tries to escape, let her go."
The man gave him a quick grin and winked. Iwahashi nodded back, then turned to Mitsuzuka, snapped his fingers imperiously, and said, "Come, lackey. Let us see to the elimination of the last of the Senshi."
"Yes, Master," Mitsuzuka said respectfully. Under his breath he added, "Don't let it go to your head." Iwahashi smirked back at him.
They started away from the girl. "I didn't know we work for the Sankaku," Mitsuzuka commented as they went.
"Life is full of surprises," Iwahashi told him cheerfully. Everything was working out perfectly after all. "You know," he added, "maybe I should have been an actor." Suddenly he felt very, very good about this mission—
Slowly, he came to a halt. There seemed to be an awful lot of noise coming from around the other side of the warehouse.
Sailor Uranus stepped gingerly outside, and took a quick glance around. The yard was echoing with shouts and muffled oaths as the two men chased Venus (or possibly it was the other way around), but for now, nobody was in sight. She decided to leave them to Venus' tender mercy. The girl was obviously enjoying herself.
She had been starting to think that there was no trap at all, that this whole rescue expedition was nothing but a product of Venus' fertile imagination. But then Mars had certainly been captured by somebody; and the two men had to be part of it somehow. Only, why had they been shouting about burglars?
A movement caught her eye and she whirled, hands at the ready to attack. She relaxed when she saw it was Bendis.
"Well?" she asked the cat in a low voice. "Any suggestions? Have you any idea what's actually going on here?"
"Er. Not exactly," Bendis admitted. "I saw some kind of light around the back, and I was coming to warn you and Venus when—"
"The back," Uranus murmured to herself. "Mars." That had to be the priority now. Venus looked like she could take care of herself, though Uranus was becoming seriously worried about the girl's mental health. She'd been pretty wild at the meeting last weekend, but this was almost ridiculous. Worse, it seemed…inappropriate.
No. Never mind that now. She had to rescue Mars. Possibly Jupiter and Mercury as well.
She bent down and picked up Bendis. Then, taking a deep breath—she'd never done this before—she took three quick steps forward, and leaped up onto the roof.
It was easier than she'd expected; she almost overshot and came down on the other side of the building. "Not bad," Bendis said in her ear, "but you don't need to hold your arms out in front of you like that. Flying lessons come later." Uranus gave her an incredulous stare, and the cat added, "Joke."
She's only two years old, Uranus reminded herself. She's only two years old. Actually, that in itself might explain a lot—
She put the thought aside for later, crouched down, and peered down at the area on the other side of the building. Involuntarily, she flinched at the sight.
An Opal had set down in the centre of the parking lot. Its landing lights were on, a bank of white, yellow, orange and blue, and she could see the rounded trapezoid of its hull clearly. Three men were standing near the door. One of them was holding Sailor Mars.
"The police," she whispered. "Of course…"
"Don't be so sure," Bendis whispered back. "Those aren't 'P' Division uniforms."
A particularly loud whoop of glee came from the yard behind them, followed by a long, rending crash and a shattering sound. Bendis and Uranus flinched as one.
Two of the men started to walk away from the third, who still held on to Mars. It looked as if they were going around to investigate the noise around the back. Uranus decided that she was not likely to get a better opportunity, and stood up.
It didn't matter if the men were 'P' Division or not. She had her own reasons to dislike the police…or any other Council division.
"What are you doing?" Bendis hissed at her. "You can't go down there! If they're not police, they're probably 'S' Division!"
Uranus ignored her, took one more quick look to check the angles, and jumped. She landed directly in front of the two men.
As she straightened up again, she heard a rush of footsteps behind her.
Iwahashi and Mitsuzuka came to a sudden halt as another girl in a Senshi costume appeared in front of them. She was carrying a cat, for some bizarre reason, and she was giving them a very unfriendly look.
They stared at each other for a long, confused moment. Then there was a sudden rush of footsteps from further away. The other two 'M' Division men came running around from the far side of the building, looking as if they were fleeing for their lives. When Iwahashi saw what was chasing them, he decided that maybe that was exactly what they were doing.
It was yet another girl dressed as a Senshi. She was moving in wild leaps and bounds, dancing all around them as they turned this way and that to avoid her. She moved in a disturbingly…feline way. And as Iwahashi and Mitsuzuka watched, she lifted her hands in a curious gesture and shouted, "VENUS CHAIN THING!"
A bright golden chain sprang from her hands, glittering and arcing with power. It struck the ground scant centimetres behind the rear man's heels, throwing up a hail of shattered asphalt and dry earth. The man yelped and ran faster. The Senshi laughed maniacally.
She's playing with them, Iwahashi thought in horror. As if they're mice and she's a—
Then he realised. The attack. The crazy girl was a real Senshi.
He turned to Mitsuzuka and saw the same realisation in the other man's eyes. Moving as one, they turned their heads and looked back at the prisoner behind them. The prisoner wearing a Sailor Mars costume.
"Oh, dear," said Mitsuzuka.
When Sailor Mars saw Uranus arrive, she let out a long breath that she had barely realised she was holding. Her allies were coming at last. She had been afraid that the man had already carried out his threat and killed them both.
Her moment of relief lasted until Venus came into sight. She gasped, and felt the man holding her stiffen as well. Venus was acting like a…a wild thing. And at school she was usually so quiet…
She tore her eyes away with a shudder. Her captor was distracted. She had to do something; the other Senshi didn't know how dangerous their enemies were!
She struggled wildly, her heart in her mouth. The arm about her shoulders tightened for a moment, then seemed to slacken. Then, unbelievably, she was free.
She stumbled away from her captor, her chest pounding. She had no time to lose. The enemy leaders were turning away from Sailor Uranus and looking at her. One of them said something. Probably an order to kill.
"BURNING MANDALA!" she shouted desperately.
Lines of fire traced themselves on the ground, startlingly bright in the darkness. They began to turn in a spiralling pattern about the men's feet, winding inward, faster and faster until they met at the centre—
There was a smoky *foof*.
One of the men yelped, and clutched his foot. His shoe was smouldering slightly. "Ow, dammit!" he shouted.
After a moment the other man started to laugh.
It was no good. It was never any good. She was supposed to wield the fire of Mars, but all she could produce was this pitiful forgery. She was a sham of a Senshi; a hopeless also-ran…
There was an unexpected thumping sound. Mars looked up, startled, and saw the two lying crumpled on the ground. Sailor Uranus was standing over them. She was holding their arms in what looked like quite a painful grip.
"Don't make a move," the brown-haired girl told them sternly. "You'd regret it." There was a strange, frightening look in her eyes: a cold, unwavering anger that spoke volumes. If they tried anything at all, she would make her threat good.
"S-sailor Uranus…" whispered Mars.
For a long time, there was no response. At last, Uranus seemed to relax a fraction. "Yes," she said. "Yes."
She took a deep breath, looked once more at the men she was holding, and let go of them with a contemptuous gesture. "Oh, get out of here," she ordered wearily. They stared up at her, scrambled to their feet, and ran for it.
As she watched them go, Mars became aware once more of what was going on around her. The man who had been holding her was climbing hastily back into the Opal. The two whom Venus had been chasing were just behind him. Venus herself appeared to have called off the chase, and was just running up to join Mars and Uranus. The last two men, freed by Uranus, were frantically dashing after their colleagues.
Her stomach knotted. "No," she said softly in dismay. Then, louder: "No! We can't just let them go…"
Venus cocked her head. "Why not? They're nothing. Harmless."
"They're 'M' Division," Uranus agreed. "Nothing to do with the enemy. Or a trap," she added, glancing at Venus.
"No, you don't understand!" Mars insisted. It was wrong to contradict them, she knew, but—"They're…they're not 'M' Division. They said that was a disguise…they were from the Sankaku Clans." She saw the others' eyes widen. Emboldened, she finished in a rush, "And they said they have Jupiter and Mercury prisoner on that Opal!"
But even as she spoke, she knew it was too late. The deep hum of the Opal's field effect suddenly grew in volume, and its running lights began to blink in sequence. She looked around in despair, just in time to see it lift into the air.
She had failed again, as always.
"No!" Venus groaned, watching the Opal rise. But it was too late, too late; they had gotten away, and Sailor Venus had blown it again. She had been having so much fun that she had forgotten to think about what she was doing.
It was exactly like last Saturday, when Lady Blue had beaten her so effortlessly. "If she'd been thinking about what she was doing, she might actually have had a chance," her enemy had said. But today, faced with enemies who were so obviously harmless, she'd fallen instantly into the same trap.
"Having fun is more important," Bendis had told her once; and Beth had answered, "But maybe we can defend the world too?" And Bendis had agreed. But I sure didn't remember that for long, did I? she asked herself bitterly.
Then she heard Sailor Uranus shout, "MUSIC OF THE SPHERES!" and realised that maybe they hadn't failed yet.
Too much angst makes a very pretentious hero, she thought. A moment later she wondered what that meant. After another moment, she told herself to shut up and get on with it.
If Uranus' attack made any sound, it was drowned out by the hum of the Opal. It was visible, though; a faint, almost invisible beam leaping from her palm to strike the base of the Opal squarely. At the same time, Venus felt a tingling sensation over every bit of uncovered skin on her body. Her teeth ached.
The Opal absorbed the attack quietly. Its path through the air never wavered.
"It's too big, too solid," Bendis said from nearby. Venus nodded absently. Maybe if she could wrap her Love-Me Chain around the Opal, and let it carry her after it? She'd done it before. But she'd never be able to keep the chain up for long enough; and besides, they'd be sure to notice…
"BURNING MANDALA!" shouted Mars. A ripple of fire swirled over the Opal's shell—
The drone of its field effect cut off suddenly. Its running lights went out. The Opal lurched in the sky, and began to fall.
The three Senshi watched, open-mouthed, as it crashed into a building a few hundred metres away. A shower of glass splinters and fragments of wood hailed down on them a few seconds later. Around the ruins of the aircraft, flames began to burn.
"Hmm," said Bendis. "Now that's an unexpected side-effect."
Sailor Mars stared at her hands, dumbfounded. Her lips moved silently.
"They'll all be killed!" cried out Uranus, her voice filled with horror. "We've got to try and—"
"No, wait!" Venus interrupted. "Look there."
There was movement amid the wreckage. Two figures staggered free; then three, five. But surely—
She fumbled at her communicator. "Sailor Mercury!" she shouted. "Can you hear me? Are you hurt? Did you and Jupiter make it out?"
For a moment there was no response. Then the tiny screen lit up with the face of a dark-skinned girl who said, "Um…what?"
"She's all right!" Venus told Uranus and Mars excitedly. Looking back at her communicator she gabbled on, "Thank goodness! When the Opal crashed, we were afraid you'd be killed or something! Did they have you and Jupiter locked up inside, or just tied up, or what?"
"Opal…crash." Dhiti seemed dazed. But then, Venus realised, she'd just been through a lot. "Wait a minute, did you say—"
"Are you hurt?" Uranus' voice suddenly joined the conversation. "You didn't hit your head, did you? It looked like you came down pretty hard." Venus glanced up and saw Sailor Uranus talking on her own communicator, Mars at her side.
"Er. No. I'm just a little…staggered." Dhiti closed her eyes for a moment. "Locked up, you said? No, I—I mean, we managed to break the holding cell open. It was, uhh, damaged in the crash."
"Do you need help?" asked Uranus. "What about Sailor Jupiter?"
"No, no, we're fine," answered Dhiti hastily. "Um, just a little woozy. From the crash. Er—" She looked away for a moment. "Jupiter seems kind of shaken-up. Maybe I'd better get her home." She paused. "Err, how did you three get onto this, anyway?"
"That was me," Venus said proudly. "When Jupiter stopped answering her communicator on Monday, I realised you two must have walked right into the trap."
"Of course you did. I should have realised." Dhiti nodded, several times. "Umm, well, thanks a lot; you saved our bacon. Ahh…look, I'd better take Jupiter on home and make sure she's okay. The rest of you should head off too, before anyone comes to investigate the…crash. I'll see you all later, okay?"
"Right," said Venus crisply. She tapped her communicator off, looked over at the others, and said, "Yes! Mission accomplished!" She let out a whoop of glee.
Uranus smiled back. "You know," she said, "I was actually starting to think we were off on some wild-goose chase. Thank goodness I listened to you instead."
Even Mars was smiling weakly. "I'm glad they're safe," she said in a small voice.
Venus nodded magnanimously. "Thanks," she said. "Listen, Mercury was right. We ought to head off, there'll be fire trucks coming soon. Just remember—" She gave them all a 'V' sign. "We did it! We rescued them, and we beat the enemy too. That'll show obaasan we're not just some kind of Johnny-come-latelies!"
They shared a last victorious smile, and then separated. Venus picked up Bendis and started for home, bounding lightly across the roof-tops. If the evening had tired her at all, she gave no sign of it.
"Quick-witted girl, that Dhiti," remarked Bendis.
"What?" Venus was not really paying attention. She slowed to a halt, a pensive look on her face. "Listen, Bendis, I've been thinking. Maybe…maybe I should drop the whole 'cat' business. Or, well, tone it down a little, at least."
Bendis ran a paw through her whiskers. "If you say so," she said.
Dhiti sat in her room, staring at her communicator, for several minutes. At last she called Miyo. Her friend answered a few seconds later.
"'Lo, Hayashi," Dhiti said, grinning wickedly. "Listen, I've got some really interesting news. Guess what you and I've been doing?"
Iwahashi pushed his way out of the rubble and stood up with a groan. He staggered away from the flaming wreckage, clutching his back. When he had put a good twenty metres between himself and the Opal, he turned and looked back at the remains. He thought about how much an Opal cost, and compared that figure to his salary.
However he looked at it, this was not going to be easy to explain to his superiors.
He heard another groan, not far off, and saw Mitsuzuka approaching. The other man looked almost as bad as Iwahashi felt.
They stood together for a time, watching the building burn. The fire trucks arrived and started to get the fire under control. After a while Iwahashi suddenly remembered whose idea the whole deception had been.
He shot Mitsuzuka an accusing look and said, "Here's another fine mess you've gotten me into."
Mitsuzuka groaned back.
Once the fire was out, they went back into the warehouse and removed the burglar alarm without a trace. And they had no trouble at all.
Dhiti went to bed still snickering to herself. The poorly-concealed triumph in Venus' voice, and the concern in Uranus', had been so utterly delicious. She couldn't decide whether it would be funnier to tell them the truth, or let them go on thinking they'd scored a great victory.
Hayashi wanted to forget all about the incident. Itsuko wanted to bang some heads together. Artemis, when they asked him, had become virtually incoherent. Dhiti wished she'd been able to see that. She fell asleep with a blissful smile on her face.
Her alarm clock went off at one o'clock in the morning, and she sat bolt-upright, staring around wildly in the pitch blackness. Then she remembered what she'd been planning.
She dressed quickly in dark clothing, taking care to be as quiet as possible. There was a small bundle of tools on her desk; she slipped it into a pocket. When she opened her bedroom door, the house was silent. All clear. She made her way cautiously outside.
It was a warm July night. The streets were nearly empty at this hour; in the pale blue glow of the street-lights, they looked eerily unfamiliar. She jogged along at an easy pace, ducking out of sight when cars approached.
At last she reached the house she was heading for, and stood looking at it uneasily for some time. The whole plan seemed a lot less simple, and definitely a lot less sensible, now that she was actually here and ready to act.
On the other hand, she wasn't one to back out on a plan just because she had last-minute jitters. She made up her mind, and slipped through the gate and around into the back yard. The rear of the house was a mass of solid shadow. She stepped up to it carefully and pressed her ear to the wall.
She took a deep breath and hunkered down in the shadow, still listening. It was late, or rather early; but she wanted to be sure that everyone was asleep before she went to the next stage.
For at least the twentieth time, she told herself that this was a stupid idea. It was almost certain to fail, and very possibly get her into serious trouble. She might well be in serious trouble even if she succeeded. Her father, in particular, would be furious if he discovered she'd been out this late without permission—and on a school night.
Still, it had seemed like such a good idea, when it had occurred to her at school the previous day. And if she did succeed, she would have scored a really marvellous coup that she'd be able to boast about for months to come.
I'll show that Sailor Venus who's the wild one around here, she thought irrelevantly.
Besides, it was to help Hayashi. That was an important consideration. She preferred not to admit it, not even to herself, but Hayashi was, well, someone she liked to help. A friend. The closest friend Dhiti had ever had, truth to tell; even Kin was not as close, and Kin could match wits with Dhiti a lot better than Hayashi ever could.
She wasn't sure if it was because she and Hayashi were both Senshi or not. Maybe that was part of it, though. Dhiti tended to leave friends behind the same way she abandoned hobbies. She was pretty sure that ordinarily, she'd have been getting bored with Kin and Hayashi's company by now. But since she'd picked up her henshin wand—since she'd made the commitment—things had seemed different.
She remembered that time, a couple of weeks before, in the dressmaker's shop. She'd been in trouble, and she'd called for help—and Hayashi had come. That had been a strange feeling.
She had always been alone, before. Active, gregarious, the centre of attention, sure—but alone, never attaching herself to anyone for long because she'd never met anyone who held her interest for long. She had been as slippery as ice. Then, suddenly, she had been offered an incredible chance: the opportunity to fly further, higher than she had ever dreamed. How could she have said no?
But there was a price, and in an unexpected coin. By accepting, she had bound herself, all unrealising, to Hayashi and Iku and the others. She had made herself part of a team, and the really strange thing was that it didn't bother her in the slightest.
She sighed, and shook her head impatiently. This was going nowhere; she was getting maudlin. She had to concentrate on what she was really here for.
She checked her watch again. One fifty-five. That meant it was probably one fifty; the communicator-watches seemed to gain about five minutes a week. She'd used her computer once to try and work out why, but she hadn't quite believed the answer. Something about the day being shorter, when the communicators were made? She vaguely remembered that the Earth's rotation was supposed to be gradually slowing; but for the communicators to gain that much, they would have to have been made so long ago that—
No. That was silly.
Another glance at the watch. Two o'clock, near enough. That was good enough, she decided. Time to get to work.
She stood up gingerly, rubbing her legs, and slipped out of her pool of shadow. She'd thought the night was warm, before; but after sitting here for half an hour, she felt damp and frozen. She wished she'd brought a jacket, but all her jackets were brightly-coloured.
The bulk of the house, looming above her, blocked almost all light from the street lamps. With a smirk, she reached up and activated her visor. A week before, she'd finally worked out how to make it appear when she wasn't in her Sailor Mercury form. Now, she watched the darkness become as bright as day, and smiled again as she made her way silently to the rear door.
It was locked, of course. Time for her second secret weapon.
She pulled out the Mercury computer and tapped the keyboard. Her visor flickered, then lit up with a scan of the lock. Helpful annotations showed the positions of the pins and how far she'd have to move each one. Really, she could almost get to like this computer.
Earlier, after school, she'd spent a few hours practising with the locks at home. It was fiddly work and she'd taken a while to get the hang of it; but her hands were nimble, and with the computer showing her exactly what to do, it was actually quite easy. It occurred to her that, if this Senshi business didn't pan out, she could always try another, more lucrative occupation.
Her hands kept slipping; she was shivering from the cold. Each time, she had to start over, probing patiently with a long bent needle. It took her nearly twenty minutes before she felt the last pin lift, and the screwdriver she'd pushed into the lock turned smoothly.
She let out a long, silent breath, opened the door, and stepped inside. Into the former home of Hayashi Miyo.
The reality of what she was doing began to sink in as she closed the door again. Burglary; there was no other word for it. She had come here to rob the house, and that was that.
On the other hand, the things she'd come to take didn't really belong here any more, did they? I don't exactly have a lot to my name any more, Hayashi had said that afternoon. When her family had thrown her out, she had been left with almost nothing.
Dhiti planned to change that.
Still, creeping around someone else's house in the middle of the night was…kind of unnerving. She found herself wishing she'd thought twice about this particular bright idea.
Oh, well, I'm here now, she thought to herself at last, quashing the doubts fiercely. She was Sharma Dhiti, and nothing got her down. Nothing. Definitely.
Now, where in the house was she? She'd never come in through the back door before; she was lost…
Finally she remembered to switch her visor back to night-vision mode, and recognised the rear hallway. Let's see; that meant that Hayashi's old room ought to be right through that door over there…
She opened it silently, stepped through, and stopped, cursing silently. She really was turned around. This was the kitchen, not Hayashi's room. She turned around to go back into the hall—
—And bumped into someone.
She heard a startled gasp, and could not restrain her own squeak of surprise. A hand reached out and grabbed her shoulder before she could break away.
A voice, shrill with fear, quavered, "Who's that? Who's there?"
Dhiti twisted, trying to break free. She could not make out her captor's face. Another hand, waving blindly, clipped her visor and knocked it off her face, leaving her sightless in the dark. She lashed out with an elbow and felt the impact; she heard a startled grunt. The hand came loose from her shoulder.
She dropped to the floor, fumbling around for her visor. Her head struck something hard and cold. She said, clearly, "Ow."
Her hand fell on her visor. She snatched it up, just as her attacker turned the lights on. She winced away from the sudden light and banged her head again. The fridge, she realised hazily. How had this all gone so wrong so fast?
Finally, she looked up.
A boy, perhaps a year younger than her, stood looking down at her, his face a picture of surprise. Hayashi's little brother, Fujimaro. "Wh—Dhiti-san?" he said incredulously. "Is that you? What…what are you doing here?"
Dhiti stood up slowly, rubbing her head with one hand. With the other hand, she made the visor disappear, hoping he hadn't noticed it. "Um," she said feebly. "Hi, Fujimaro-kun."
A silence fell. For once, Dhiti could not think of anything to say. This was one of Hayashi's family; one of the ones who'd thrown her out. She ought to feel angry at him, or contemptuous, or something, surely? Instead, seeing him standing there blinking at her in his pyjamas, she realised that he simply looked rather pathetic. She looked up at his face again, started guiltily when she saw him staring back at her, and studied her feet intently. "Um," she said again.
They both heard the creaking floorboards from the corridor. Somebody was coming. Dhiti stiffened, automatically looking around for somewhere to hide. To her surprise, Fujimaro pointed to the open door. She blinked, then leaped over and flattened herself behind it.
The footsteps halted on the other side of the door. Dhiti held her breath.
"Fujimaro?" she heard. "What on earth are you doing? Do you know what time it is?"
"Sorry, otousan," Fujimaro answered. "I was getting a glass of water, and I banged into the door. Sorry. I didn't mean to wake you—"
It was Hayashi's father, Dhiti realised. Her father. The man who'd disowned her. The man who'd learned that his daughter was a Senshi, and had responded by throwing her out of the house.
A peculiar black mist seemed to descend before her eyes. She clenched her teeth. She wanted to throw the door back into his face. She wanted to become Sailor Mercury and…and do something. Something violent. To the man who'd hurt her friend so badly.
"I was already awake," she heard Hayashi Hitomaru say. "I couldn't sleep." He sighed. "Never mind that. Keep it down, will you?" There was a muffled sound: a father patting his son on the shoulder. "Good night, Fuji-chan."
Fujimaro mumbled something that Dhiti couldn't make out. She heard Hitomaru pad off down the corridor again. For a wild moment she wanted to follow and scream at him: You can't sleep? You do that to my Hayashi, and you can't sleep?
Then Fujimaro pulled the door away from her. She stared at him, still furious, and her expression made him flinch.
"Why did you come here?" he whispered. "To burn the house down?"
She thought about it. "Maybe," she said, only half-sure that she was joking.
"Go ahead," he said bitterly, no longer bothering to keep his voice low. "Maybe you'd be doing us a favour."
Dhiti hesitated, not knowing quite how to take that. "What?"
He stared at her for a moment longer, then looked away. "Never mind," he said; and at the sight of the weary resignation on his face, her anger suddenly faded. "Just…never mind. It doesn't matter. What are you doing here, anyway?" he asked. "How did you get in?"
She started to answer, then stepped past him suddenly and closed the door into the corridor. If they were going to talk, there was no sense in waking anyone else. Then she started wondering what to tell him. Best to keep it straightforward, perhaps.
"I came to steal some of Hayashi's old stuff, and take it to her," she said.
She watched his face as she spoke. His expression was quite satisfying.
When he had finished spluttering, she said, "So, all you have to do is shout, and I'll probably end up in jail. What are you going to do?"
"Can I help?" he asked.
Dhiti blinked. "Er," she said.
"How were you going to get it all out of her room, anyway?" he asked. "Just hope that Miliko doesn't wake up?"
She felt the blood rush to her face. "Er," she said again. Somehow she'd managed to forget that Hayashi had shared a room with her little sister. Maybe she should forget that career as a burglar after all.
He smirked at her, and Dhiti suddenly remembered why she was glad she didn't have a brother. "It doesn't matter, anyway," he said. "My father moved all of her things out, days ago. It's all in cartons in the basement." The smirk suddenly vanished, so quickly that she realised that it had never been genuine in the first place. Without it, she could see the baffled pain and anger in his face. "Miliko cried for hours," he said quietly. Almost inaudibly, he added, "So did I…later."
Dhiti hesitated, then dared to ask, "Why? Why did he do it? Why did he just—throw her out?"
Fujimaro closed his eyes for a moment. "I don't know," he said softly. "He…he won't talk about it. He won't even say her name. But he can't sleep at night. He never smiles any more. And my mother…she's worse. She's like a ghost; she drifts around the house all day and…and…And Ichiyo, he tries to pretend that he doesn't care, but he does, it's breaking him up, and Miliko thinks it's all her fault, because she was the one who told everyone that—"
He stopped, biting his lip, a sudden wariness in his face. After a second Dhiti realised what he'd been about to say: that Hayashi was Sailor Jupiter.
"And what about you?" she asked coolly.
He made a face. "I just want her back!" he burst out. "I just want my sister back again."
He drew a long, shuddering breath. "I saw her a few days ago," he said quietly. "She said…she said it was my fault. Because I didn't say anything, I didn't do anything to try and stop it. And maybe she was right." He looked up at Dhiti, his eyes glimmering. "But I don't care," he said. "I just want her to come home again. But she can't do that any more…"
Dhiti shook her head, wishing she were somewhere else. Anywhere but here, in the middle of a family crisis she had no business with. At last she said, "So, let's go see what's in the basement. I can take a load tonight, at least."
He closed his eyes. "Someone already did take some of her stuff, you know. A woman. I don't know who she was. She came here, the night when…you know. She and otousan ended up shouting at each other, but she did take a lot of clothes away with her." He looked up suddenly. "Who was she?" he asked. "You must know that much. Can you tell me where Miyo's staying, at least? At first I thought maybe she was sleeping at your house, but…"
She cleared her throat. "My house?" she said dryly. "I definitely don't think my father would appreciate that. He and Hayashi don't…um." She bit her lip. "I don't think I should tell you where she is, though. Not without talking to her first."
Not because of you, though, she added silently. Because of me, and Itsuko, and all the others. You already know about Hayashi, but that would be risking too much…
"No," he said sadly. "I guess she's not my sister any more, but she's still your friend, right?"
"Maybe," she said. "I'll…I'll talk to her."
"Just…just tell her I'm sorry. And I want to be her brother again. Please."
She nodded, wishing once again that she had never come here. "The basement?" she prompted him hopefully.
Fujimaro sighed. "Yes. All right. Come on then…" He paused, and shot her a quick look. "Are you one of them too? Like her?" he asked.
Dhiti froze. He had seen her visor, then. Damn.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said woodenly.
He nodded, as if satisfied. "Come on, then," he said, as if nothing had happened. Puzzled but relieved, she followed him down to the basement.
Two and a half hours later, Dhiti was in the Olympus building, kneeling beside the door to Itsuko's suite. This night was turning out to be hell. She was starting to wonder if she'd ever get any sleep again.
There was a large bag on the landing behind her. It was filled almost to bursting with clothes, books and a really fascinating collection of knick-knacks which she had been bursting to paw through—if only Fujimaro hadn't been watching when she'd packed them. It was heavy as hell, too. Carrying it to the Olympus had been murder. By the time she'd remembered that it would have been easier if she'd changed to Sailor Mercury, it had been pretty much too late.
Now, she was wearing her visor again, and tapping away at her computer's keyboard. This door had an electronic lock; her screwdriver and bent needle would not be any use. Instead, she had to persuade her computer to 'talk' to Itsuko's security system. It was depressingly difficult, though she wasn't quite sure whether this was because the security computer was too stupid or too intelligent to cooperate.
She could always just knock, she supposed. Itsuko and Hayashi would understand, once she showed them why she was here. But, damn it, she wanted to do this right. Simply showing up at the door, handing the bag to Hayashi, saying "Hi, this is yours" and then leaving…just didn't seem right. Not Dhiti's style.
How much more satisfying, instead, if Hayashi should simply wake up in the morning, mysteriously surrounded by her own things. The surprise, and then the look of stunned gratitude on her face. "What angel did this for me?" she'd say…
Dhiti blinked, misty-eyed. Okay, the angel part was a bit much. Still, the scene at Hayashi's house had been something of a disaster; at least she wanted to get this end right.
Almost as if in answer to her thought, her computer bleeped and flashed a combination onto her visor. She stared at it woozily for a moment—it really had been a long night—and then punched the numbers into the keypad. The door clicked.
Well, what do you know? she thought. Maybe I could be a burglar. She would have to suggest it to her father sometime; see what he thought of the career choice. Perhaps to the school vocation guidance counsellor, too, if only to see the man's expression.
Still grinning at the idea, she put her computer away and stepped inside, closing the door softly behind her. Then she sighed, opened the door again, and went back to collect her bag from the landing. She'd be forgetting her own head next.
Okay, let's see. Miyo's room was just down the hall, and…through that door. She stepped through, and found herself in the kitchen.
She blinked. This was becoming suspiciously familiar.
A little unnerved, she shouldered her bag and turned to leave. As she did so, she bumped into somebody. "Oh, no, not again," she blurted out loud.
"Oh, no, not again," said the other person at the same moment.
They stared at each other.
"Who are you?" Dhiti asked. She didn't recognise the voice. "Er, this is the Pappadopoulos suite, isn't it?"
"Aizawa Ochiyo," said the other. "Um, who are you?"
Belatedly, Dhiti remembered that she was still wearing her visor. Well, it was too late to remove it now.
She struck a pose. "They call me…the Masked Avenger!" she announced. Inwardly, she patted herself on the back. That was pretty good, she thought, pleased. I wonder what I'll say next?
"Are you here to burgle Pappadopoulos-san again?" asked the girl nervously.
Again? Dhiti paused, startled. Fortunately, her mouth started working before her brain had quite caught up. "Um. No. Actually, I'm very sorry about burgling you before, so this time I've decided to leave things instead of taking them. All right? Here."
She handed the bag to Ochiyo, who took it, startled. Dhiti made the most of the moment, and ran for it.
The next day was pure hell; Dhiti could hardly stay awake during school. The teachers all noticed and had a great deal of fun at her expense. Also, Hayashi cornered her at lunch-time and tried to throttle her, and then hugged her soundly.
So it had all been worth it after all.
Suzue took off her apron and sat down with a sigh. Home Economics was over at last. There were days when she enjoyed the class, but today was definitely not one of them.
She stared at the articles on the plate before her. They were supposed to be takoyaki. After a minute, she picked one up and took an experimental bite. It wasn't nearly as bad as it looked.
A hand stretched over her shoulder and took another ball. She looked around to see her partner, Shoda Keiko, popping it into her mouth. The other girl chewed for a few moments, her face expressionless. Suzue waited for her verdict in silence.
Keiko swallowed, several times, and finally nodded slowly. "Y'know, Suzue-chan, I hate to say this, but you're a really…indifferent cook."
Suzue nodded, still silent. She already knew that.
"Could be a lot worse, though. You saw what a mess Aizawa made?"
She smiled faintly. "That was an accident, though. She tripped."
"Yeah, and spilled that pot all over Yamaguchi—Oh, never mind. At least I got you to smile." Keiko brushed her hair back from her eyes, looked down at the plate again, and said, "Come on, toss that stuff in the bin and let's get out of here, okay?" She took another ball, as if in defiance of her own instructions, and stuffed it into her mouth.
Suzue picked up the plate and headed for the bin obediently, ignoring the fusillade of coughing that broke out behind her. As she returned, Keiko was hurriedly setting down an empty tumbler.
The two headed out of the building. When they paused to put their shoes on, Keiko said, "Actually, you've been pretty quiet all day, Suzue-chan. All week, really. Something bothering you?"
Suzue hesitated, biting her lip.
"Boyfriend trouble?" Keiko prompted her.
"No!" she blurted out, then blushed. "Minoru-kun and I are…getting along fine, thank you."
"Well, good. Y'know, I used to worry about you, until—never mind. So what is the problem, then?"
Suzue remained silent for a minute longer. At last she said, "It's not a problem, exactly. I've had something on my mind, that's all."
Keiko raised her eyebrows. "Oh? What?"
"That…would mean discussing a topic we agreed that I'd never mention to you again."
"Oh," Keiko said in quite a different tone of voice. "Um. Never mind, then."
She nodded, and the two of them walked outside in complete silence. Suzue had tried to talk to her friend about her beliefs, once, a few years before. Their friendship had been strained over the matter for a long time afterward.
Nevertheless, she could see a train of thought start in Keiko's mind. Her friend started to speak several times as they walked, each time catching herself before the first word escaped. Her face was a picture of frustration. It was unkind, Suzue knew, but she enjoyed the irony of the moment anyway.
"What is it?" she asked when she thought Keiko had suffered enough.
Keiko flushed. Then, defiantly, she said, "Oh…it can't hurt to talk about it, can it? Just this once," she added, a trifle guiltily.
"Of course not," Suzue murmured ironically, too low for Keiko to hear.
"Well, I couldn't help wondering…you know, with these new Senshi showing up, what you people thought about it," Keiko stumbled out. "I mean, I'd have thought the Loon—the Church of Serenity would be all excited and, you know, shouting about it to the newsies, and so on."
'You people', Suzue thought to herself. 'Loonies.'
"So…isn't this supposed to be like the end of the world, or the Rapture, or something?" There was, remarkably, no mockery on Keiko's face. "I was just, you know, wondering."
Suzue sighed, shaking her head. "Nobody's really said anything. I think they're still trying to make their minds up, actually." She thought for a moment. "Everyone was expecting the Blessed Lady—"
She flushed. "—Sorry. They were expecting S—Sailor Moon to appear first, or maybe right after Sailor Venus. But there's no sign of her yet. The College of Intercessors are trying to decide what it means. Last week, Elder Kurita said that we—"
Seeing Keiko's expression, she broke off. "Umm. Maybe you don't want to hear that part."
Keiko shook her head, a wry grin in her lips. "Sounds like you guys are just the same as everyone else, really," she said. "Just waiting to see what happens." A moment later she added, "Y'know, Suzue-chan, you take all this stuff way too seriously."
"Maybe." Inwardly, Suzue thought, If you didn't want to hear about it, why did you ask? She didn't say it aloud, of course.
They walked on. Keiko changed the subject, talking at length about one of the boys in their class who she was sure liked her. She tried, none too subtly, to get Suzue to tell her how far she'd gone with Minoru. Suzue took it in good part, deflecting the more personal queries and even prodding Keiko back a little. The awkwardness was gone once more, to her relief.
All the same, something about Keiko's words bothered her. You take all this stuff way too seriously…You're just the same as everyone else. Waiting to see what happens.
But I'm not the same as everyone else, am I? she asked herself angrily. I'm a Senshi—one of the Blessed Lady's appointed.
With a sudden shock, she thought, Maybe I shouldn't be waiting, then.
She became aware that Keiko was speaking to her. "—hear a word I'm saying," her friend complained. "Are you all right, Suzue-chan?"
She blinked; then, slowly, she smiled. "Yes. Yes, I'm fine," she said. "You've been a big help, Keiko-chan. Thank you."
"I have?" Keiko gave her a baffled look. "Oh. Good. Don't mention it. Umm, are you going to tell me what I did?"
Suzue thought for a moment, then shook her head. "I think I'd better not," she said. "See you, Keiko-chan!" Suddenly light-hearted, she ran out the school gate, having to resist an impulse to skip like a child.
Keiko stood, looking after her. "Don't mention it," the girl repeated. With a shrug, she added, "Whatever it was."
On Thursday night, another vitrimorph attacked. The download unit at a local music store suddenly came to life, a few minutes before closing time. It rampaged around the store for a while, destroying equipment and injuring several people, before breaking out through the front window and lurching into the street, firing razor-sharp silvery metal discs at the passers-by.
The Sailor Senshi arrived before anybody was killed, and eliminated the menace in a pitched battle that ended when the unit exploded in a crystalline burst. The Senshi departed the scene quickly.
There were five of them now, the newsies reported gleefully that evening. Venus, Jupiter and Mercury had been joined by Uranus (who was rumoured to have appeared once before, two weeks previously in a battle at a theatre) and a newcomer, Mars. There was still no sign of Sailor Moon.
Beth pushed the book aside with a sigh. It was Friday afternoon; she should have been out enjoying herself. Spending time with her friends. Maybe catching a movie, or window-shopping, or…or something. Instead she was cooped up in her room with nothing to do but read a lot of books that, to be honest, were extremely boring.
She could be out with Eitoku, she thought dreamily. If only he'd hurry and get up the nerve to ask her! Or bumming around with Nanako was fun; but Nana-chan had said she couldn't make it. That only left Iku; and the thought of hanging out with Iku was, well, ridiculous. And Beth didn't have any other friends to speak of.
There were the other Senshi, she thought half-heartedly. But while they seemed nice enough, she really hardly knew them; they weren't exactly what she could call friends yet. She wasn't totally sure she remembered all their names, to be honest.
She reached for her communicator to call them anyway; but her nerve failed her at the last moment. She reached for her book again, feeling wretched.
This one was a textbook about modern building design. Beth knew next to nothing about architecture, and she was finding it heavy going. She managed to wade through another three pages—taking a fresh sheaf of notes on points to look up the next time she was at the library—before giving up, her mind a weary maze of half-digested facts about foundation depths, air flows, sewage and electrical systems, and vital feng shui considerations.
I'm never going to need to know this stuff, she thought grouchily. And who cares, anyway? She'd gotten the book out thinking that it might come in handy if she had to fight in any more office buildings in the future; but, as with many of her other recent reading experiments, she had seriously underestimated the technical detail involved.
She looked at the next book in her pile, hoping that it would be easier going. It was the one that Bendis had been pressing her to read, she realised: "Secret Warriors: The Women Who Built Crystal Tokyo."
History. Great. Like she didn't know this stuff already. After all, she'd seen it all on the viddy, hadn't she?
She blinked suddenly, and checked her watch. The program had started five minutes ago. Getting up from her desk, she hurried through to the living room. She found Bendis already there, sitting in front of the viddy, transfixed.
Beth rolled her eyes. Not again. The cat had finally gotten the hang of working the controls with her paws, and was fast becoming a video junkie. It was quite a funny sight, actually.
"Um," she said. "I wanted to watch…um."
The cat flicked her tail at Beth in irritation, not taking her eyes from the screen. Queen Serenity was just climbing into an improbably-shaped mecha, as Sailor Jupiter and Sailor Asteroid cheered her on.
"…Um." Beth sat down beside Bendis. Within moments, she was as deeply immersed in the program as the cat.
Somewhere in Third Tokyo…
The leaders of the Sankaku Clans gathered. More than sixty men and women came together, by ones and twos, in an unremarkable hall in an unremarkable building. A sign in the foyer showed that the facility had been reserved for an advertising convention.
Those who attended the meeting were not in the very highest ranks of the Sankaku. They were one or two levels from the top, though not all of them knew this. Nevertheless, security was very tight, if unobtrusive. The identity of every person who arrived was checked, in multiple ways, before he or she was allowed to enter. By the time the meeting began, the security team on duty were confident that there were no more than two 'S' Division informers present.
Okuda Jiro was one of the security team. He kept a close eye on the double agents as the meeting progressed; and when it was over he would be the one responsible for keeping track of their movements and who they spoke to. If anything too important was said at the meeting, he would also be responsible for making sure that they did not have a chance to repeat it.
For now, he sat with his colleagues in the little A/V room that overlooked the main hall. They had fitted the room out as a monitoring station. The lights were dimmed, and the rows of monitors—showing views of the hall, the surrounding corridors and the streets outside the building—lit up their faces with a flickering glow. Other monitors tracked radio activity, vibration patterns and ultra- and infra-sonic audio frequencies. The Clans had learned through experience to be very, very cautious.
Jiro still managed to keep half an ear on the actual proceedings of the meeting.
"—Have to be concerned at what they're up to," one of the delegates was saying. "'S' Division have been jumpy for weeks. Somebody must have done something to set them off."
"Surveillance levels have gone through the roof in the last three weeks, in particular," someone else complained. "And then there was that raid on Hoseki Property—"
"Not just Hoseki," another woman interrupted. "They raided Hashi Finance and Kantera Investment Services, too."
"Yes, but they put a lot more effort into Hoseki. It's obvious which one they were really interested in…"
"That's what they want you to think," a fourth voice said. A ripple of laughter ran through the room.
"Seriously," said the first voice. "Have any of us been doing anything to set this off?"
There was a long pause. At last, a new woman's voice said, "Niji Clan have not been taking any unusual actions in the last two months."
"Nor have Shinpo clan," said a man. His voice was reluctant, as if he had not wanted to speak.
There was another long silence. Then a young man with a sharp, crisp voice said, "Paradise Clan have been…monitoring recent events closely. But we have begun no new actions."
"So what has got the Serries in a panic, then?" asked the second voice. "This cat-hunt of theirs, I suppose?"
There was more laughter. A new voice said, "I thought we had agreed that the cat search was connected with the reappearance of the Senshi."
"Probably connected," someone else corrected.
"Very well, then. We are carrying out our own cat-search, of course, though I doubt that it is making any more progress than 'S' Division's own. But I fail to see how a search for a missing cat could connect to the raid on the Hoseki Property Group…"
Still listening, Jiro hid a grimace. He had a very good idea of how the cat-search was connected to Hoseki. A little over three weeks before, he had had an unexpected call from an old friend.
He had first met Pappadopoulos Itsuko twenty-five years before—though she had been using a different name then. She'd been a dabbler in the underworld, a small-time fence and smuggler with a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He'd been fairly new on the wrong side of the tracks himself, back then, and Itsuko had done him a number of important favours. In return, he had been able to put her in contact with someone when she'd needed to adopt a new identity, papers and all.
She had apparently gone straight after that, and he was fairly sure that she didn't know that he was now Sankaku; but still, he had been happy to help her out when she'd called. The nature of her request, though, had been unexpected.
She had wanted her business de-bugged; but who would want to bug a gymnasium in the first place? Jiro had been curious. Was his little Itsuko-chan still involved in something dirty after all?
His men had installed a system for her, to feed a false signal to the bugs. It had been very easy to add a little something at the same time: an extra system that broadcast the true signal…to Jiro. He had listened to the results with great interest.
He had gotten far more than he had bargained for. Itsuko-chan was involved in something, all right, but it wasn't anything dirty. His old friend Itsuko was a good deal older than he had thought. It was no wonder that she needed a new identity now and then; and no wonder that she didn't seem to have aged, in all the years he'd known her.
Jiro was left with an awkward decision to make. He knew that Itsuko was really Hino Rei of Crystal Tokyo; and that her young ward was the reborn Sailor Jupiter. After the long meeting a week ago, he knew who all the other Senshi were, too.
He had made sure that he was the only one to hear what Itsuko and her friends were saying. But what should he do with the information?
The most obvious answer was to do nothing. Personally, Jiro was all for the new Senshi—though he knew that, ultimately, they were bound to be against people like him. Still, he remembered his history lessons; he knew what the Senshi had done for humanity, and he was not inclined to oppose the heirs of Crystal Tokyo.
(Well, not unless they ended up working with the Serenity Council. But the Serries had announced just recently that the Senshi had turned down their offer to meet. All three Sankaku Clans had breathed a collective sigh of relief.)
Nevertheless…he suspected that he and Itsuko were the connection between Hoseki and the cat-search, though the details were a little hard to fathom. 'S' Division had started getting nervous right after he'd visited Itsuko; and of course he was also one of Hoseki's security consultants. It was even possible that 'S' Division had been the ones to bug the Olympus in the first place, though he had no idea why.
So what was he to do? He ought to tell his Sankaku superiors what he suspected. But that would probably mean giving Itsuko's secret away. If he tried leaving that part out of his story, someone would get suspicious. In the Clans, that was inevitable.
Thus far, he had kept silent. But if the pressure from 'S' Division got too much greater, he might have to talk—purely to save his own neck. It was not a decision that he relished.
Shaking his head slowly, he turned his attention back to the monitors. It sounded as though somebody was making some firm decisions at last.
"—Have to get some answers," a man was saying. "Increasing our penetration of 'S' Division headquarters should give us new answers. Maybe"—he gave a quick grin—"even tell us what the cat-hunt is all about."
"I'll have a couple of our moles inside 'S' activated," a woman responded. "We should get some useful feedback within a week."
"Good. Also…" The man referred to a sheaf of notes on the table in front of him. "Shinpo Clan report that their cyber division is ready to try another crack of the Opal communication net. If we can finally break that, we'll have a direct line into 'S' Division's operations."
A loud murmur of agreement and anticipation filled the hall. Jiro was no longer paying attention, though. As the man had spoken, a message light on Jiro's comm remote had started to blink.
'S' Division's two double agents had just heard too much. Jiro was going to have a little extra work to do, once the meeting was over.
"You've been pretty distracted lately," said Eitoku. "Is something wrong?"
Nanako gave him a wide-eyed, innocent look. "Distracted?" she said. "What do you mean, 'Toku-chan?"
It was Saturday afternoon, and school had just let out for the weekend. Most other students had made a bee-line for the gates, but the two of them had met out at the back of the main building, enjoying a rare chance for a little privacy. They would be meeting again that evening, true, but that was an eternity away.
Eitoku snorted. "As if you don't know already. All that Senshi-watch stuff, for a start. And sneaking around with that kid, Kawatake. And spying on Beth-san." He rolled his eyes at the idea. "And you've been going round other schools looking for some Claver girl named 'Dhiti.'
"What!" She stiffened, looking at him in shock. "How did you hear about that?"
"Ah-ha! It is true, then."
"Huh? You mean you—"
"So what's it all about? Paying off a bet? Or have you decided to set up shop as an information broker, or something?"
"Don't be silly." Working as a broker would be far too much work. Nanako only investigated the things she was personally interested in. Mind you, that did cover a lot. "Seriously, where did you hear about Dhiti? That was supposed to be—"
"Never mind that," Eitoku said impatiently. "I suppose she owes you money, or something. But…spying on Beth-san? Why, for heaven's sake? Hasn't there been enough spying around here already?"
He meant Beth and Hideo, she knew. Nanako thought about saying that if he went ahead and joined 'D' Division, he'd be seeing a lot more spying yet; but she suppressed the impulse. It was petty, and a little too sharp to fit the not-too-bright persona she preferred to project. Eitoku knew about her façade—they'd been dating for months now—but she did try not to break character, even in front of him. He'd admitted that he thought it was cute.
Besides, she'd already seen that he was a little touchy about the whole 'D' Division thing.
"I mean, how would you feel if Beth-san or I started spying on you?" he went on.
She blinked. "Pretty flattered," she said. "Why?"
"Gahh!" He gave her a disgusted look.
"Look," she said reasonably, "what's the problem, anyway? If you must know, Kawatake was the one spying on Beth-chan. I think it's kind of cute, myself." She chose her words carefully. Eitoku knew her well enough that he might be able to tell if she lied. "I don't need to spy on her. She's my friend, remember? I see her every day."
He harrumphed. "All right, all right. What you see in her—no, never mind. But," he asked plaintively, "why the Senshi, Nana-chan? I never figured you for an otaku."
Nanako decided to be honest. "How can I not be interested?" she asked him. "The Senshi are back, and if two thousand years ago is anything to judge by, they're going to affect…well, everything! You want to be a politician—why aren't you interested? They're going to change the world under your feet!"
"If they're allowed to," he said.
She stared at him for a long time. "What?"
"What if people don't want the world to be changed?"
Sick shock, in her gut. "What…what are you talking about?" she whispered. "You don't mean—"
"I mean that I like the world the way it is now." Eitoku spread his arms wide. "What's so wrong with it? Why does it need changing?" He shook his head. "I don't see why we need a mystic moon queen to poke her nose in. Shouldn't we be allowed to choose our own way?"
"Crystal Tokyo was a paradise on Earth!" Nanako flared back. "And you just want to turn your back on it? What, are you crazy? 'What's wrong with the world'—what's right about it? We had perfection once, and we can have it again!"
"Oh, stop," he said disgustedly. "You're starting to sound like one of the Loonies."
She froze, eyes wide. Then she slapped his face. "That," she hissed, "is a horrible thing to say."
They stood, almost nose-to-nose, for a moment that seemed to last forever. She could see the mark on his cheek, just beginning to redden. His eyes were wide open, the whites showing all around. His expression was shocked, just beginning to darken with anger. She herself was wire-taut, poised in the precipice between rage and fear. In another moment, one of them would say something unforgivable.
Then Nanako started to giggle.
The tension broke in an instant. She heard Eitoku's sigh of relief, and for some reason it made her laugh even harder. "One of the Loonies," she managed to say. "H-horrible." And then the absurdity of the idea, combined with the strain of a moment ago, was too much. She dissolved in mirth again, and all the stress and anger came washing out in a great cleansing tide. She looked up at him, saw him staring back with a look of utter incomprehension, and had to turn away because she was laughing so hard it hurt.
At last she managed to sober once more. "You are horrible sometimes," she told him, not looking around. "You know that?"
"I know," he answered amiably. "It's one of my better points." She chuckled, and heard him chuckle in reply. Then he gave a faint cough. "Um," he said. "So, are we still on for tonight?"
"What!" She whirled on him, her eyes flashing. "What are you talking about? If you think you're getting out of a date that easily—"
Too late, she saw the glint in his eye, and the faint smile on his lips, and realised that she had been had. "You—you…" she spluttered. His grin widened.
She could either hit him again or laugh again, she realised. After careful consideration, she did both.
Once the mutual giggling was over and they had both calmed down a little, she sighed and wiped her eyes and said, "You idiot!" He nodded in self-satisfied acknowledgement, and she added, smirking, "You'd just better have something special in mind for tonight to make up for that, 'Toku-chan."
He shrugged. "I might have something planned," he admitted.
That was the nice thing about Eitoku. He wasn't, admittedly, a lot to look at, and he didn't have a romantic bone in his body. Of course, Nanako wasn't exactly a hearts-and-flowers kind of girl either. But he did know her, maybe better than anyone; he knew what she liked, and how to get her to enjoy herself—for real, not just as a pose. She could relax with him, and that meant a lot.
"Well, then," she said happily. Who cared about Loonies? "Now I just need an excuse."
He raised his eyebrows, left behind as usual. Poor dear. "For what?" he asked.
"For Beth-chan," she explained patiently. "She was hinting that she wanted to do something tonight. Don't worry about it. Now, what would she believe…?"
As she fell to plotting, Eitoku gave her a long, thoughtful look. "Do you ever feel guilty?" he asked quietly.
She paused, distracted. "About what?"
"About Beth-san," he said. "About not telling her about…you and me. She's supposed to be your friend, Nana-chan."
Suddenly Nanako could not look him in the eye. Her plans collapsed in ashes around her ears. "Um," she said.
"I mean, you've been leading her on for—what, weeks? More than a month. I can't say I exactly like her, but…she deserves a little better than that, surely."
"I know." Nanako studied her shoes. "It…it wasn't supposed to be this way."
"Well, you saw how she was!" she protested. "Following you around, hiding in the bushes and spying on you…moaning and sighing over you in private like…like something out of a bad romance novel! I thought if I pulled her in and made her actually spend some time with us, up close, she'd figure out what's what in the end."
"Moaning and sighing?" he asked, intrigued.
"Never mind that! Anyway, you saw what happened. She's off in a world of her own, she just ignores anything that doesn't match the way she thinks things are."
"All the more reason to tell her," he said unsympathetically.
"Yes, but how? You said it yourself: I've been leading her on for weeks. We've been leading her on. I can't just go up to her and tell her, oh, by the way, I've been dating your dream boy for months now. It'd be…I don't know. A betrayal." She looked up at him, troubled. "It's gone too far, and I don't know how to stop it now…"
"You don't want to hurt her."
"No. I like her. She's…my best friend, maybe." A sudden smile quirked her lips. "Naïveté and self-delusion on that scale can be oddly appealing."
He grinned. "You big softie, you."
"Idiot." She grinned back at him; but then the moment's humour faded. "I really don't know what to do, though. All I can think of is to keep on the way we are, and be careful she doesn't find out."
"Not much of a solution," Eitoku told her sombrely.
"No." Impulsively, she hugged him, and buried her face in his shoulder. "I'll work out something," she murmured. "Or, who knows? Maybe she'll find someone else…or just forget about you. Beth-chan has a lot of other things on her mind at the moment." She gave a secret smile as she spoke.
"So," Eitoku said meaningfully, "do I."
Nanako looked up, and found herself staring straight into his eyes, only a few centimetres away. She realised that she was still holding him, and that his own arms were around her as well. Involuntarily, she moved her face closer to his.
There was a startled gasp from right behind her.
Nanako let go of Eitoku and stepped away from him hurriedly. It was much too late, though. As she turned around, she knew, with a doomed prescience, exactly who she would see standing there.
After classes let out at noon, Beth made her way around to the school gymnasium. The Hiking Club was meeting, and she'd been missing rather a lot of club meetings lately. Nobody had said anything to her yet, and she wanted to keep it that way.
A group of boys were shooting hoops as she walked inside, and she found herself checking their faces automatically. But, of course, the one she was looking for wasn't there; he wasn't the sporting type. Flushing, she hurried past them.
The club held its meetings in a room at the back. She was a little late; as she let herself in, the president was already speaking. He glared at her, and she bobbed her head in mute apology.
He was proposing a club trip to the Minami-Boso reserve, on the far side of Tokyo Bay. Beth listened to the presentation carefully. She wanted to go, but it would be a rather expensive trip and she was not sure that she'd be able to talk her parents into funding it. Besides, it would mean being away from Third Tokyo for a couple of days, and if she were needed as a Senshi…
She emerged from the meeting feeling rather grumpy and unsatisfied. She had never realised before just how disruptive being a Senshi could be on her personal life. Or perhaps, she added honestly, it was that this was the first time her new role might stop her from doing she really wanted to do.
Perhaps, she thought as she stepped outside again, she should talk it over with obaasan. She and Miyo had gotten off to a poor start, with the other girl's veteran-and-rookie attitude, but since then they'd been friendly enough; and Miyo ought to know, if anyone did, how to handle this sort of thing. Surely the Senshi must be allowed some kind of outside life!
They were supposed to be having a combined training session tomorrow; Miyo had called her about it the night before. Apparently Itsuko had come up with a good location somewhere or other. She decided to ask them about time off then.
As she walked on, lost in thought, she became aware of a pair of voices coming from up ahead, just around the next corner. To her surprise, she heard one of them speak her name. Then she realised that they sounded familiar; and in another moment she recognised Nanako's voice.
She must have waited for me, she thought happily. That was nice of her. Beth had hoped to catch her and ask if she wanted to get together that evening. But who's that with her? she wondered. She put on a burst of speed and trotted around the corner, opening her mouth to call a greeting to her friend—
Then she saw who Nanako was with.
Then she saw what they were doing.
And then, at the last, she could do nothing but stand and stare, as embarrassment flooded her cheeks with blood, and shame and betrayal ground splinters in her heart.
For a long time Nanako could think of nothing to say. She looked helplessly at Beth, and saw the shocked understanding in the other girl's eyes. They were alone; there was nothing in the world but the two of them, caught in a timeless instant. Even Eitoku, standing behind her, had almost ceased to exist.
The silence stretched out until it became unbearable. At last she could stand it no more. "Beth-chan…" she began; but then she quite simply ran out of anything more to say.
Perhaps even that had been too much. As she spoke, she saw something crystallise in her friend's face.
"How long?" Beth asked. Her voice was apparently calm, but there was a faint quaver in it. Her whole body was trembling.
"I—" Again, words failed Nanako. She could not meet the other girl's eyes.
"How long?" Beth repeated. "How long have you been…together?"
Still Nanako did not know how to answer. At last Eitoku saved her. "Several months now," he said quietly. "Since before you started—" He hesitated, then shrugged. "Hanging around."
Her eyes flicked to him, then away again. "How…" She was trembling harder now. Her fists clenched and unclenched spasmodically. "How you must have laughed at me."
Nanako caught her breath in a little gasp. "No!" she burst out. "Beth-chan, you—"
"Don't you call me that!" Beth screamed at her. "Don't you dare lie to me like that again!"
Her unnatural calm broken at last, they could see the tears that stained her cheeks. Eitoku took a single step toward her, holding out one hand. Beth flinched away from him. She yelled something completely incomprehensible, something between a shout and a sob.
Then she turned and fled.
Nanako stood, frozen, for an instant, then started to go after her. A hand on her arm held her back. "Don't," Eitoku told her. "She won't want to listen to you right now."
"But—but I have to—"
He shook his head. "It may be better this way," he suggested. "At least it's all out in the open at last."
"Don't give me that!" she flared, rounding on him furiously. "You're just as guilty as I am!"
Something sparked in his eyes, but he kept his temper. "I suppose I am," he said. "But Nana-chan, even if you caught her, what would you say to her?"
"I—I don't know," Nanako said miserably. "I don't know anything any more." She looked in the direction Beth had run, but the girl was out of sight. She took hold of the hand that he still rested on her arm and clutched it fiercely. "It wasn't supposed to be like this," she whispered. "Beth-chan…you can't just leave. I can't lose you like this. I need you…"
Eitoku's eyes widened, but he showed no other reaction. "Give her time," he said. "Give her time."
She nodded. "Maybe," she said with little conviction. She pulled her arm free and walked away, toward the school gate. Eitoku stood staring after her for some time, but she did not look back.
She wandered aimlessly for a while, too wrapped up in bitter private thoughts to pay much attention to where she was going. The streets were filled with people, and most of them seemed happy and cheerful. An hour ago, she'd been just like them. Why did it all have to go so wrong?
When she looked up again, she saw that she was standing outside Beth's house. There was, perhaps, something inevitable about that. She stared at the door for some time, then went up to it and knocked.
Beth's mother answered, and told her that the girl had arrived home a few minutes before, picked up her cat, and hurried out again. She had hardly seen Beth before she was gone.
"Is she in some kind of trouble?" asked McCrea Helen, concerned.
"I hope not," Nanako said. "We had a fight, and…I don't know. I just need to find her. When…when she comes back, could you ask her to call me? Please?"
It would do no good, she knew as the woman nodded. Beth would not call. Maybe not ever.
Damn it! How am I supposed to fix this?
Beth sat in the warehouse yard, in the centre of a pile of rusting old machinery. The whole area was still cordoned off after Wednesday evening's escapade, but she had little trouble slipping past the barriers unseen. She found a spot that was concealed from passers-by and sat there and stared at nothing at all.
She held Bendis on her lap and stroked the cat gently. Her face was perfectly composed and expressionless. Neither of them spoke.
Keiko had helped her reach a decision, all unknowing, but Suzue found herself hesitating just the same. She would have liked to talk it over with somebody; but then, that was the point, wasn't it?
Finally, on Saturday afternoon, her mother ordered her to stop moping around the house and go and do something. That was too much like what Keiko had said to be ignored. She told herself that waiting any longer would only make it worse, steeled herself, and set out.
She and her family usually attended services at the Queen Heart Chapel, ten minutes' walk from her house. She could not go there today, though; she would be recognised immediately. Instead she caught a bus into town, and made her way to the Mother House of the Church.
Outwardly, the Temple of the Congregation of the Holy Lady was a simple building, three stories high, and painted an unassuming white. There were no signs or logos of any kind. The Church of Serenity had found that they only invited defacement.
Inside, the hall was warm and comforting. It was dimly lit, so that a peaceful hush seemed to fill it; but at the far end there was a raised dais that was bathed in light. On it stood a great statue of a woman in long, flowing robes. Her eyes were raised heavenward, her arms outstretched as if to embrace the world, and there was a serene, welcoming smile on her lips. She was carved from white marble, but there was a loving artistry in the work, and in the subtle way it was lit, that gave her a startling life. The crescent moon on her forehead, inlaid with pure gold, shone brilliantly.
Suzue had only been here a few times before, and the statue had its usual impact on her. She stopped before it and knelt reverently at the Blessed Lady's feet. There was an ornate bowl of clear oil on the altar at the base of the statue. She dipped her fingers in this and traced the symbol of the crescent on her own forehead, then closed her eyes in silent prayer.
When she rose to her feet once more, a minute later, she felt calmer and more resolved than when she had come in. She looked around the hall for a way to the temple offices. There was a plain, unobtrusive door in one corner. She tried the handle tentatively, found it unlocked, and ventured through.
There were men's and women's lavatories nearby. She entered the latter and stared at herself thoughtfully in the mirror for a minute. Then she pulled out a comb.
When she was finished, she took a pair of cheap eyeglasses from her pocket and put them on. The lenses were plain glass; with them on, and with her hair combed out and falling around her face, instead of being drawn back as usual, she looked startlingly different. Anyone who knew her well enough might still recognise her, but she was fairly sure that a stranger would not know her if he saw her again. Satisfied, she walked out of the ladies' again.
There was a minor labyrinth of ancillary rooms at the rear of the temple, but nobody seemed to be about. At last she tried upstairs, and almost immediately bumped into a middle-aged man. He was heavy-set but not fat, with a short, greying beard, and he gave her a sharp, canny look as he helped her to her feet once more.
"Can I help you, young lady?" he asked. "You're not one of our regular assembly, I think."
"No, I—I don't come here very often," she said, flustered. "Please, I—if I may, I'd like to speak to one of the Intercessors."
He raised an eyebrow, then glanced quickly at his watch. "You can talk to me, if you like; I have a few minutes to spare," he said. "I'm Bunya Kenjiro. My office is just down here…"
She followed him obediently, trying to hold onto her little remaining nerve. She felt strongly tempted to run for it.
The Intercessor's office was small and homely, its walls mostly lined with bookshelves. Bunya sat down behind an untidy desk, waved her to a chair opposite, gave her an encouraging smile, and said, "What can I do for you?"
Suzue took a deep breath and said, "It's about the Senshi."
He grimaced. "Isn't it always," he said dryly. "I think half the Faithful in Japan are worried about the Senshi. What's your particular problem? Afraid that the world is about to end? Not sure you're ready to meet the Lady?"
"No. Nothing like that. It's—" She broke off, biting her lip. It wasn't too late to back out of this. There was still time. But she had to try…
"I know who they are," she said in a low voice.
The Intercessor stared for a moment. Then he gave her a very old-fashioned look. "Do you, now," he said.
Suzue did not notice the look. She was too busy studying her hands. "Yes. Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter. Um, and Uranus. I…I've met them." The words were coming more easily now that she was committed. "And the moon cats. Elder, I've met Artemis! He lived in the Holy Moon Kingdom in his own flesh, and I spoke to him! Me! And I even met…"
"Yes?" Bunya's voice was silky-smooth.
She continued, unheeding. Now that she had begun, it was so easy to go on. There were so many things that she had never been able to tell her parents or her friends; so many things that she had longed to share with someone, anyone, if only there were someone she could trust…But here, now, speaking anonymously to an priest of her own faith, she could let it all come pouring out. And oh, it was such a relief! She had never realised how painful it had been, to have nobody to talk to; nobody to share her wonder, her doubts and her fears with. Here, now, in this place, she could feel free.
"I met Hino Rei, Elder," she said softly. "One of the Blessed Lady's own Senshi! She…she's still alive. Still young. She spoke to u—to me about the Perfect Days in Crystal Tokyo, and…the F-fall…how the Great Enemy struck, and they fought for the Blessed Lady, and then She arose and redeemed the world…"
Bunya let out a long-suffering sigh. "Hino Rei died during the Fall, young lady," he told her gravely. "All of the Senshi did. Even the unbelievers know that much."
"No! She talked about that. She said she—she was knocked unconscious in the last battle, and she was badly hurt, and everyone thought she was dead, but she survived! She's been alive all along, waiting for the Senshi to come back!"
"Oh?" He gave her a slightly pitying look. "Then why has she never come forward, young—What is your name, by the way? Forgive me; I should have asked before."
Involuntarily, Suzue froze for an instant. But she had been expecting this question. "I…would rather not say," she told him firmly.
He only shrugged. "Very well. Suppose that Saint Hino is alive, then. Where is she? Why has she kept herself secret? Why has she not come forward to join these new Senshi who fight in the Blessed Lady's name?"
"Because—" Suzue broke off. There were some things she did not want to tell even a priest. That Hino Rei was now powerless was one of them.
"Why has she not approached the Church?" Bunya went on. "Why does she not proclaim the truth of the Blessed Lady's holiness for all to hear? Why does she not denounce the wickedness of the Serenity Council, who take the Blessed Lady's name yet give nothing but persecution to the faithful?"
"Because she isn't one of the faithful," said Suzue in a small voice.
The Intercessor was silent. "I beg your pardon?" he said at last in a forbidding voice.
"She—she isn't. She said that it…it was nonsense. She said the Blessed Lady was just an, an ordinary human. I don't—I don't think any of the other Senshi are believers," she added miserably.
Bunya simply gazed at her for a long moment. Then he shook his head slowly. "Now you've disappointed me," he said.
That was a long way from what Suzue had expected. "Excuse me?" she asked.
"At first I thought it was quite a clever story. Untrue, of course, but simple enough, and hard to poke holes in. But now you're simply getting foolish. Lady Hino was one of the Holy Serenity's closest disciples. She witnessed the Blessed Lady's power many times; she herself was raised from the dead twice. The idea that she might call the Lady 'an ordinary human' isn't just blasphemy…it's ridiculous.
"The rest of your story is just as bad. You know all the Senshi, and naturally they're happy to pour out their hearts to you. How very convenient. Oh, and Artemis is there, too, to deliver sage wisdom! I'm surprised you didn't tell me he jumped through hoops for you.
"And of course, you 'would rather not say' who you are. Tell me—" He half-rose from his seat, looming over her, and she shrank back involuntarily from the growing anger in his face. "You aren't actually one of the faithful at all, are you?" he demanded. "I suppose this is some kind of clever prank? 'Let's make fools of the Loonies again!' Very humorous, yes."
"No…I—" she began.
He sank back into his chair. "It doesn't matter," he said. There was a weary contempt in his voice. "Just leave, please. These are trying enough times for the Church without having to suffer this kind of utter inanity. If you actually care about the Lady at all, I'd suggest you pray to Her for a little common sense and respect. Otherwise—" He looked away from her, his face set in a heavy scowl. "Don't waste my time."
"No," she whispered. "You don't understand."
Bunya did not look back. "Go."
She dithered for a moment longer; but at last she stood up and fled his office. He did not try to follow her. She ran downstairs and out through the hall. The statue on its dais still looked upward, its hands reached out to embrace the world, but now it seemed to her that the smile on its impossibly perfect features was a mocking one. She gave it one last wounded look and ran on.
At last, several blocks from the temple, she came to a halt, gasping for breath. She pulled the glasses off and threw them away, not caring where they landed, and pulled the hair back from her eyes. She blinked around at the street, but nobody seemed to be paying any attention to her. And why should they? She was a foolish time-wasting prankster, spouting utter inanities.
How dare he!
To her distant surprise, she felt only rage. How dare he! He was supposed to be one of the Blessed Lady Serenity's Intercessors; a priest, a holy man, a wise and learned man who could examine the evidence in a matter and interpret the will of the Lady. But at the slightest hint that he might be wrong, he erupted in anger; he would not even consider the possibility that he might be mistaken. How dare he!
A memory came back to her: of Pappadopoulos Itsuko, scowling at her with exactly the same kind of look of scorn on her face. Holy men are just as capable of being blind, or ignoring what's right under their noses, as anyone else, she had said. Apparently she was right after all.
Then Suzue froze. As capable of being blind as anybody else. Itsuko had said it herself. Anybody else.
If Bunya was wrong…wasn't it possible that Itsuko was wrong too?
She walked down the street for a little, turning the idea over in her mind. The more she thought about it, the more likely it seemed. Hino Rei had been one of the Blessed Lady's closest friends. Wasn't it likely—even inevitable—that she would be reluctant to accept her friend's divinity?
With new resolve, she looked around. There was a comm booth a couple of blocks away. She hurried over to it, inserted her credit chit, and tapped in a number that she read off a piece of paper from her pocket.
"Hello?" said a voice in her ear, a few moments later.
"Pappadopoulos-san?" she said. "This is Itagaki Suzue."
There was a slight pause. Then Itsuko said, "Wait a moment." Suzue heard a faint click. "There," Itsuko went on. "Now we can talk. What is it?"
Suzue took a deep breath. "Do you remember what we were discussing on Sunday night, after the meeting?" she asked.
There was a sudden wariness in Itsuko's voice. "Yes?"
"Well," said Suzue, "I've decided that you were wrong. And I'm going to make you see the error of your ways."
And the explosion of confusion and outrage at the other end of the comm link was simply wonderful.
Mitsukai Senritsu finished transmitting the last batch of data over to the Han Domain, and added a quick note to Lieutenant Murasaki. She looked at the next piece of work on her list—correlating the last of the data captured during the Hoseki raid—and then closed the folder instead and sat back with a sigh.
It was early morning, a little after dawn, and the air inside the 'S' Division van was stuffy and overheated. She had just worked another all-night marathon, her third in a week. Her eyes were dry and she had a headache. She was, she thought, beginning to get a little tired of the sight of her computer screen.
Her brow wrinkled. With a sigh and a cracking of stiffened joints, she stood up and went to the rear of the van. A quick check showed that nobody was around. She opened the doors, stepped out, and stood blinking in the half-light.
The air outside was fresh and moist and at this hour, still cool. There was almost no traffic on the roads yet. Overhead, the sky was a clear paling blue. It was going to be a hot day. She looked around and felt her face relaxing into a rare smile.
She leaned back against the side of the van and yawned. Absently, she tried to remember how long it had been since she had last slept. If Hiiro were here, she knew, he would order her to get out and not come back for a couple of days. Actually, that wasn't a bad idea.
On the other hand, there was, as always, a mountain of work waiting to be done. Perhaps if she just caught a quick nap…she had a bedroll hidden in one of the equipment lockers. It wouldn't be the first time she'd slept in the van. Though if any of the others caught her doing it, they'd tease her; and she hated that more than almost anything.
For a brief instant the idea of going home to sleep occurred to her. Then she dismissed it scornfully. Some things didn't bear thinking about.
She was about to climb back into the van when she heard footsteps coming toward her. She snapped her head around, instantly alert, and then relaxed when she saw who it was. Kitada Masao. What was he doing here at this hour?
"Hi, Lieutenant," he said cheerfully as he came up to the van at an easy jog. "You got the early shift again, huh?"
Mitsukai looked at him for a moment longer, then nodded shortly, still wondering why he was here. Kitada hadn't been to the van in a couple of weeks. It surprised her that Captain Hiiro hadn't sent him back to his real job yet; he was only an Irregular, after all.
Actually, it had been a while since she'd seen much of any of the team, not just Kitada. The cat search had never been formally cancelled by headquarters, but it had more or less fallen apart just the same. It had been an absurd assignment in the first place, and after so many weeks without results nobody believed it would succeed.
The whole team had found other things to do instead—unofficially, of course. Captain Hiiro had led the recent Sankaku raids, and was now assisting a group that monitored Sankaku operations throughout Japan. (The raids had been prompted by his team's work at the Olympus, so at least the said work hadn't been a complete waste of time.) Kuroi was spending most of his time putting Kitada through an intense form of basic training. Mitsukai herself had simply retreated to her computers; there was always plenty to do for a good analyst. Captain Aoiro had been the last to give up; but even he had almost abandoned his surveillance within the building.
Kitada did not seem put out by her long silence. "Captain Kuroi told me to come in and see if you've got anything he could use for an EE exercise," he went on. "Sometimes I think he's trying to see how many different operating protocols he can hit me with before I crack." He gave a wry shrug, then grinned. "At least it's a bit more challenging than accountancy."
His grin widened. "If Sachiko could see me now!"
Mitsukai ignored the last comment, and thought for a moment. Electronic Espionage operating protocols? That covered a lot of territory; EE work was often as much art as science.
Kuroi wouldn't want anything advanced, though. Urged by a sudden mischievous spirit, she suggested, "There's the security cameras. Nobody's checked them in a while."
Kitada gave her a mock-horrified look. "Not the cameras," he begged. "Please. Anything but that."
Mitsukai smirked back at him. There was a battery of twenty-six hidden cameras monitoring the Olympus building. They had set them up after Artemis had been seen in the area; but it had been a long time since anybody had bothered to look at the recordings. It was a stupendously boring job.
She let the grin fade and became thoughtful. What would be a good EE job for a beginner? "How about the data from the Hoseki raid last week?" she said. She hadn't finished matching it against known Sankaku operations yet. If he finished that, it would save her the time; and even better, nobody would care if he screwed it up.
Kitada's eyebrows rose. "Sure, why not?" he said. "After all, I was sort of part-responsible for it happening in the first place."
She shrugged, and climbed into the van. Kitada followed and stood behind her as she pulled up the data on her computer. "I don't quite see what they expected to get out of the raid, anyway," he said idly. "I thought we'd already ruled out the link between Pappadopoulos-san and the Sankaku."
Mitsukai glanced over her shoulder at him, then returned her attention to the monitor. "They didn't expect anything," she said shortly. "We'll be able to confirm that the Sankaku didn't have any connection with Pappadopoulos-san, but nobody expects any more than that." Her fingers rattled over the keys. "The raid was a demonstration, that's all. We were…pruning the Sankaku back a little."
He blinked at her. "I think that's the most I've ever heard you say at once."
She ignored this, too, and said impatiently, "Look." She typed in a query to bring up the records on the Olympus building from the captured Hoseki data. The screen lit up with the data a moment later. "There. Exactly what we already knew."
Kitada nodded. "The security contract, right," he said. "We found that when we went back through the paper records—" He broke off as she stiffened abruptly. "What? What's wrong?"
She stared at the screen, a tiny frown on her face. Then she suddenly seemed to notice him once more. "What? Oh. Sorry. It's nothing," she said hastily. Her eyes flicked to the contract, then away again. "I just…thought of something. It's not important."
Her hands moved quickly at the keyboard; she dumped all the Hoseki files to a data wand, and handed it to him. "Here," she said. "The records need to be matched against known Sankaku movements and agents, and then searched for patterns of material, money or data flows. Captain Kuroi will know how."
His face fell. "That doesn't sound much more interesting than the cameras," he muttered under his breath. She simply glared at him in response. He was perfectly correct, but she did not have to admit it. At last, thankfully, he took the wand and left.
She breathed a sigh of relief as he closed the door behind him. Kitada was a talented beginner, but he hadn't seen the significance of the contract; and that was good, because it gave her time to think about what it meant.
Nearly a month before, she and Kitada had searched the archives at 'S' Division to investigate a possible link between Pappadopoulos Itsuko and the Sankaku Clans. They had found a deed of sale and a security contract, both between Pappadopoulos and Hoseki.
But Hoseki's own records only showed the security contract. There was no sign of the sale.
She thought it over, then ran some checks over the rest of the Hoseki records. They seemed complete, apart from this one item. If the Olympus sale was missing…could Hoseki have some reason to conceal it? She let out a faint hiss. If so, it might suggest that there actually was a link between Pappadopoulos and the Sankaku!
Strange, how she no longer felt sleepy at all.
She left the van, locking it and activating the security system behind her. Then she walked three blocks east and caught a bus into the city centre. Some of the other passengers eyed her rumpled clothing, sniffed the air, and made faces and edged away from her. Mitsukai did not even notice. Should she tell Captain Hiiro about this? Not yet. It might still be a mistake. Maybe.
Twenty minutes later she pulled out her pale blue ID tag, clipped it to her breast pocket, and marched into 'S' Division headquarters.
The records section was three levels underground. She had to show her ID twice to get in. A number of people gave her dirty looks as she entered; she'd left quite a mess behind the last time she'd been here. She ignored them and went into the archives. She remembered what box she was looking for and went straight to it.
A few moments' search brought her a copy of a property-transfer notice. Pappadopoulos Itsuko had acquired the Olympus building in 4179. Mitsukai nodded to herself, took a note of the record number, and returned to the records section. She found an unused computer terminal and tapped in an enquiry.
The monitor lit up with a copy of a deed of sale: the same one she and Kitada had found before. She nodded to herself. That much was all in order. She started to clear the display—and then hesitated. Then she went back to the archives and found the property-transfer notice again. This time she took it out with her and compared it to the document on the monitor.
The details didn't match.
The names, dates and filing numbers were the same; but that was about all. Otherwise, the two documents could have been referring to two different properties altogether. In fact—
She entered a new enquiry into the computer. This one took several minutes to complete; but at last a new record flashed up on the screen. Mitsukai studied it carefully. It was almost identical to the other deed of sale; even the signatures were the same. But this deed was for the sale of a property in Hokkaido.
Somebody had broken into the 'S' Division computers. They had taken a copy of the Hokkaido document, altered a few details to refer to the Olympus building, and loaded it into the records.
Well. This was getting interesting. Someone was anxious to hide something about the Olympus. Who could have the resources to pull this off? The Sankaku?
After a few minutes' thought, she cleared the computer and asked it to link to the 'I' Division records system. This took some time—she had to go through several levels of authentication and authorisation—but at last the system granted her access. She entered the filing code from the paper property-transfer notice. That was the most likely to be accurate.
The computer displayed a new document, and she blinked in surprise. Whatever she had been expecting, this wasn't it.
It took her several more hours, but at last she was able to confirm that the information from 'I' Division seemed to be accurate. Pappadopoulos Itsuko hadn't bought the Olympus building in 4179 at all. She'd inherited it. The previous owner, a woman in her mid-forties, had died and left it to Pappadopoulos, a distant relative.
The legacy was all perfectly legal and quite unremarkable. So why was somebody trying to conceal it?
What else were they trying to hide?
The day turned out blisteringly hot. The sky was a clear, dazzling blue; there was hardly a breath of wind. Late that morning, five teenage girls and a tabby cat met in a small park near the outskirts of Third Tokyo.
Iku and Dhiti arrived separately by bus, to find Miyo already there waiting for them. A few minutes later Suzue's mother dropped her off, followed shortly after by Beth and Bendis in Beth's father's car. The six stood for a few moments, looking about.
"We're supposed to train here?" asked Dhiti at last. "Hate to break it to you, Hayashi, but there are people around. They might kind of notice something."
"Oh, I don't know," said Bendis thoughtfully. "It depends on what sort of training she's got in mind. I've got one or two ideas…"
"Let me guess," said Dhiti. "Senshi ninja training! How Not To Be Seen."
Bendis gave her an interested look. "Not bad," she said. "Though I was actually thinking of—"
"Do you mind?" put in Miyo. "We're just waiting for Itsuko. She's got some kind of scheme cooked up. She wouldn't tell me what it is, but I think we're going to—wait a moment. There she is."
They looked and saw a van driving up toward the park. It was making a most peculiar noise. Instead of the regular hum of an electric motor, it made a kind of low, purring rumble that it took them a few seconds to identify.
"That's an alcohol engine!" exclaimed Suzue. "Where did she get one of those? A farm?"
Miyo shrugged; but she, too, was staring. She was spared having to answer as Itsuko pulled to a halt in front of the group and called out, "Hop in."
They clambered inside and found seats. As Itsuko threw the van into gear again and drove off, they threw a chorus of questions at her: "Where are we going?" "Where did you get this van?" "Is it yours?"
"Oh, I know a few people," she answered vaguely, keeping her eyes on the road. "And we're going out of town a way. I thought we'd have more privacy there."
"Hey, neat!" said Dhiti. "I've hardly ever been out into the countryside."
"I have," said Beth. "The Hiking Club at school goes out five or six times a year. Mostly it's by train, but a couple of times the school's hired a bus."
Itsuko sighed. "Sometimes I think it was a mistake to switch to electric cars, back in the Forties. They don't have much range, so people don't often go out of town any more."
"Well, no," said Suzue logically, "but then, there isn't really very much to do out of town, is there? So why bother to go?"
Itsuko turned her head for a moment to glance at her. "That," she said, "is exactly the problem."
"What?" Suzue stared at her, baffled; but Itsuko only shook her head and concentrated on driving.
It took them a few minutes to get out of the city. A great mass of railway lines led south-east from Third Tokyo, and the road followed them for some distance. Then it turned east and ran on through broad stretches of fields on either side. For a while, as they left Third Tokyo behind, there were other cars on the road with them. After an hour or so, though, they passed the return-distance range of an electric car, and drove on virtually alone. The condition of the road grew rapidly worse after that point. They saw an occasional farm truck, but nothing else.
Itsuko had to keep most of her attention on the road, but she spared an ear to listen to the girls in the rear of the van. The five of them chattered away merrily, completely at ease. Dhiti did most of the talking, unsurprisingly, but the others joined in freely. Even Iku spoke up a few times, usually at Dhiti's rather unsubtle coaxing. Beth was rather quiet for a time, as if she had something on her mind, but after a little she too seemed to relax and start to enjoy herself. Suzue, on the other hand, did not say a lot, and seldom smiled; but when she did speak, there was a note in her voice that showed that she was enjoying herself; and once, when for some reason or other the others were arguing about music, she startled them all by bursting into song, in a clear, pure voice that had everyone in the van applauding when she finished.
(She was going to have to have a serious talk with Suzue. 'Error of her ways,' indeed!)
And as for Miyo…Itsuko smiled to herself. Miyo remained Miyo. Not quite the Makoto she had once been, more than two thousand years ago, to be sure. She was less self-reliant in this life, and seemingly less of a starry-eyed romantic as well. That came of growing up with a family, Itsuko supposed, and especially with two brothers. Their loss had hurt her deeply, and Itsuko knew that she still cried about it at night; but now, hearing her laughing and joking with the other girls, she thought that perhaps this day out was the best medicine Miyo could have had.
At any rate, the girls seemed to be coming together nicely. That was a relief. Itsuko had been afraid that, without the uniting presence of a Sailor Moon to lead them, they would never really grow close enough to become the team they needed to be. She was uncomfortably aware of how little she herself had had in common with the other Senshi, long ago. If they had not had Usagi as their focus, befriending them willy-nilly and binding them to her with her warmth, her love and her care, they would never have fitted together.
But so far, this new team seemed to be working out well enough. Miyo had, perhaps inevitably, become their de facto leader. They teased her mercilessly—even Suzue had started calling her 'obaasan' now—but they respected her nonetheless. Why, when Beth had thought Miyo was in trouble, she had not hesitated to call the other Senshi together and rush out to rescue her…
Itsuko grimaced at the thought. She was still not sure what to do about that fiasco; but she was going to have to talk to Beth about it sometime today. Perhaps Artemis would have some idea of how to handle it.
Then, with a sudden shock, she heard what the girls in the back were talking about now, and realised that she was not going to have the leisure to plot strategies with the moon cat.
"—Go on," Dhiti was saying, a wicked glint in her eye. "We'd love to hear all about it. To get the other point of view." She shot a glance at Miyo and added, "Since Hayashi and I were…you know, all tied up at the time."
"Oh…" Beth looked nervous. "I suppose so. Um." She squirmed about in her seat for a moment, glancing at Bendis; but the cat remained oddly silent. "Well. You see, I was trying to get hold of Sailor Jupiter, to find out what had happened about the, um, the bodies at the warehouse, but she wasn't answering her communicator…"
Itsuko saw Miyo's sudden start in the rear-vision mirror, and then her look of mortification, and had to stifle a groan. So that was how the whole thing had begun. She glanced over at Artemis, who was curled up in the other front seat, but he simply gave her a helpless shrug.
Beth went on with her story, gradually shedding her embarrassment as she warmed to her subject. Suzue threw in a word of confirmation now and then. Gradually it all came out: the raid on the warehouse; the Opal, and the men who captured Sailor Mars; and the last-minute victory when Mars prevented the enemy from escaping with the captive Mercury and Jupiter.
Dhiti listened to it all, totally rapt, her eyes shining. The smile on her face grew wider and wider as the story wore on. "Amazing," she said when Beth fell silent at last. "Just amazing. We were really lucky there, weren't we, Hayashi?"
Miyo opened her mouth to answer, looking pained; but before she could speak, Artemis broke in. "Just a minute," he said. "These men said they were from the Sankaku clans?"
"Umm," said Iku, taken aback. "Yes. They said they were in disguise. They said…" She bit her lip. "They said they were going to eliminate us," she finished in a small voice.
"The Sankaku," Artemis murmured. "That doesn't make sense. They're organised crime. Why would they be fighting us?"
"Could they be allies of Lady Blue, do you think?" asked Beth. Then her face fell. "But she's never needed allies before…"
"They might have some kind of resources that she needs," mused Suzue. "For all we know, they may be stealing Crystal Tokyo relics for her. That could explain that tracker unit she had at the theatre."
"Good point," said Artemis. "And we know the Enemy controls crystal, so he'd probably have been able to get it working, too."
"Wait a minute," said Dhiti, startled. "You don't mean you're taking this seriously?"
"Why wouldn't he?" asked Beth innocently.
"Dhiti-san, Miyo-san, did they say anything to you that might suggest what they're planning?" asked Suzue.
"What?" said Miyo, visibly taken aback. "To me?" She flushed suddenly. "Er, they…I mean—I'm not—" Gradually, she stuttered to a halt. Beth, Suzue and Iku all stared at her.
"Go on, Hayashi," said Dhiti wickedly. "We're on tenterhooks here."
"I—" Miyo looked at the three expectant faces, then away again. "Damn it, Dhiti-chan!" she burst out. "This is all your fault!"
"My fault? Hey, they did it, not me! Where do you get—"
"No, but you let them go on believing it!"
There was a moment's silence. Then Dhiti said, very quietly, "You could have told them any time you liked, Hayashi. You could do it right now."
Miyo winced. "I—no, you're right. I'm sorry…"
Beth looked from Miyo to Dhiti and back. Her face was a mask of confusion. "What are you two talking about?"
With a sigh, Suzue said, "I think they mean that…It wasn't true, was it? You two were never prisoners at all."
Dhiti looked at her, then away again. "No," she admitted.
"I was in the bath," Miyo confessed. "I didn't have my communicator with me. I just…never heard it. I'm sorry, Beth-chan."
"What?" said Beth wildly. "But—but that can't be right! You had to be! I mean—those men, they admitted it! They said they had you prisoner!"
"I did wonder if it was a wild-goose chase, while we were in the warehouse yard," said Suzue thoughtfully. "But then…Beth is right. Those men did tell us—well, they told Iku-san…"
Suddenly everyone was looking at Iku. She shrank back in her seat, shaking her head wildly. "No!" she said. "I swear! They did tell me, they did! They said they had two of us prisoner on the Opal!"
The other girls exchanged glances. Then Artemis put in, "But you didn't see any Senshi escape from the Opal, and if they'd been trapped on board the firemen would have found them; it'd have been on the news."
Miyo nodded. "The Sankaku were lying."
"Lying," Beth echoed. "Of course." She looked up at Miyo and Dhiti, and there was a strange emptiness in her eyes. "It's true, isn't it?" she said. It was not a question. "You weren't in any danger. You weren't even there. I was just…playing the fool. Leading the others into danger, and all for nothing."
Bendis stirred on her lap. "Beth-chan, it's not like that," she began.
"Isn't it?" Beth stared at her for a moment. Then, deliberately, she picked the cat up and placed her on the floor of the van. "All this time, Bendis. You—you knew, but you let me go on thinking it was real, all this time. I thought I was doing something important there! I thought we'd won something!"
"You jumped to conclusions all by yourself, and you didn't want to listen when I tried to tell you!" the cat exclaimed. "And besides, even if there wasn't anything there I thought it'd make a good training exercise…"
"Training exercise. Of course," Beth said. She gazed at Bendis for a moment longer, then shook her head. "You and Nanako," she whispered. "Both of you."
Bracing herself against the swaying of the van, she stood up and made her way carefully back to the unoccupied rear seat. She sat down there, turned her face to the window, and closed her eyes.
The van rumbled on, its occupants noticeably quieter than they had been. They had left the fields behind, and the road now wound its way gradually up into the hills. The land about them was covered with thick bush; and then, minutes later, a real forest. It had been some time since they had seen another vehicle.
And then at last, when the silence in the rear of the van was almost thick enough to cut with a knife, Itsuko let out a pleased "Ah!" and turned the van off the main road, onto a narrow, almost invisible lane that led off through the trees. They bumped along for a few minutes more, branches scraping the windows on either side, and then suddenly emerged into a large grassy clearing.
Itsuko brought the van to a shuddering halt. "Everybody out!" she announced. "We're here."
The girls clambered out of the van, stretching and groaning, and began to explore the clearing, chattering excitedly among themselves. Somebody called out, "Hey, there's a stream over here!" and they disappeared en masse. Bendis hovered in the door for a minute, looking at the long grass suspiciously, before finally jumping down and disappearing from sight almost instantly.
In the front of the van, Artemis and Itsuko exchanged glances. "You'd better go keep an eye on them," the woman said softly. "There's a pit toilet behind the bushes on the west side; let them know, would you? I'll take care of things here."
"Pit toilet," Artemis muttered. "They'll love that." He glanced back at the rear of the van, where one girl still sat motionless, and nodded. "Go easy on her," he suggested, just as softly. "I think there's something else wrong there, too. Bendis may know; I'll have a word with her." Itsuko raised her eyebrows, then nodded back. He leaped out of the van and ran off in the direction the others had taken.
Itsuko sat thinking for a minute or two. Then she climbed down from the driver's seat and walked around to the back, not hurrying. When she got there, she sat down beside the remaining girl. Neither of them spoke for some time.
"So, how long are you planning to go on feeling sorry for yourself?" Itsuko asked at last.
Beth did not answer. She did not react at all.
"You didn't do everything wrong, you know," Itsuko pointed out. "From what I can make out, you led the raid quite well. That was a sound strategy you gave the others at the gate."
"Sound strategy!" Beth spat, still not looking around. "I didn't even follow it myself."
"You let your enthusiasm get the better of you," Itsuko said mildly. "I've known other Senshi to do the same thing. Your predecessor, for example. Or Sailor Jupiter. Or even me."
"Yeah? Did you ever lead the other Senshi on a non-existent mission that you'd convinced yourself was real?"
She suppressed a grin. "Not that, no." Then, more seriously, hoping she had judged the right moment, she said, "Beth-chan, why don't you tell me what the real problem is?"
Beth never moved, but Itsuko felt an immediate withdrawal from the girl. She had expected that, though, and refused to back off. She simply sat, waiting.
"I don't want to talk about that," the girl said at last in a low voice. "I…I don't know you. You're not my friend."
"No. I'm not here as a friend."
And at that, finally, Beth looked around, and Itsuko knew that she had guessed aright. "You aren't, are you?" the girl asked wonderingly.
Itsuko shook her head, carefully not smiling. She did not speak.
"I thought she was my friend," Beth said abruptly. "Nanako. I thought I could trust her. But she lied to me. She'd been lying all along. And I thought: at least Bendis is still my friend. I can always trust her." She turned miserable eyes up to Itsuko. "Then I found out I was wrong again. And…and that doesn't leave anyone."
A variety of comforting responses occurred to Itsuko. She ignored them all and said, "Tell me about Nanako."
It took some time, and a great many digressions. Beth started to cry half-way through the story, and Itsuko lent her a handkerchief without comment. Eventually she got the story straight. A fairly unexceptional teenage crush, and Beth was just the sort of girl to get caught in it: bright but naïve, somewhat introverted, and with an active fantasy life. She rather thought that Beth had walked into the situation in exactly the same way as she'd walked into the fiasco at the warehouse. Though this other girl, Nanako, and the putative boyfriend certainly deserved a good shaking for the way they'd handled it…
"So what are you going to do?" she asked, when Beth was finished at last.
"What am I…?" The girl trailed off, and Itsuko saw that she'd won new respect. She hadn't offered advice. She was letting Beth make the decision.
"I don't know," Beth said after a moment. "I'm going to have to see them at school tomorrow. I don't know what I can do."
"I expect they'll both be very apologetic when you see them. You might want to consider what you're going to say."
Beth thought about that. "I will," she said.
"Good." Itsuko gave her a quick nod. Then she got up and started to climb down out of the van. Half-way out the door she paused and said, "Beth-chan? You made some mistakes on Wednesday night. But they were just mistakes. That's all. You know that?"
For an instant she thought she'd taken it too fast. Then, low but firm, Beth said, "Yes."
"Well, Bendis made some mistakes too." Itsuko waited, staring the girl in the eyes, until she saw the slow understanding in her face. Then, without waiting for an answer, she stepped out and walked briskly away from the van, not looking back.
After a few minutes, Beth followed her.
"Is she going to be all right?" asked Artemis.
"I think so," Itsuko replied thoughtfully. "She needed to get a little perspective, that's all. Give her a while to sort things out and she should be fine."
"Mm. I suppose." Artemis gave a feline shrug and said, "What about the other girls? It's nearly noon. Did you want to feed them all now, or do something before lunch?"
"Well…it took longer to get here than I remembered." Itsuko considered for a moment. "Let them relax for a bit longer, I'd say," she answered at last. "We'd have a job getting anything serious out of them right now anyway." Some distance off, there came a startled shriek, the sound of a splash, and then laughter.
"You think?" he answered cynically. He gazed around the clearing for a moment or two, then said, "Well, let them run wild for a bit. You picked a nice spot. Handy, that you happened to know about it."
"Yes, it is, isn't it?"
"Convenient that a place this far out of the city has toilet facilities, too. Although I thought I noticed a lot of old tyre tracks on the lane we came down."
"Really?" Itsuko gave him an amused look.
Artemis let out an exasperated sigh. "All right, I'll say it, then. Do I need to be worried about company here?"
She laughed. "No. The, ah, gatherings that happen here are rather tightly scheduled. The next fair isn't for over six weeks. Even if the girls tear the place up a bit today, by then nobody will notice."
"'Fair'?" Artemis shuddered. "No. Don't tell me; I don't want to know." He looked around the clearing again with a jaundiced eye, as if expecting to see it littered with the sinister evidence of dark, illicit deeds. There was, disappointingly, nothing but a wide, grassy clearing, lined with trees.
Shaking his head, he said, "Anyway, that wasn't the only thing I wanted to talk about. While I've got you here…there's something I've been meaning to give you."
Itsuko raised her eyebrows. "Be still, my heart. What?"
He concentrated briefly, then spun about in a circle, as if chasing his tail. An instant later, there was a muffled thump in the grass. Artemis nosed the object that had appeared, and after a second Itsuko bent down and picked it up.
The sudden shock of recognition was almost too much. "A communicator?" she said.
"Yes. It's, er, your old one. I found it in the palace, after…well, you know. The one Iku-san has is Younger Mars', of course."
She stared at the device, a complex mixture of emotions playing across her face. "Why?" she asked. "And why now?"
"Oh—you never know. I just thought, if any of them ever need to contact you in a hurry…"
"I see." Itsuko looked at it for a minute or two longer, hardly seeming to breathe. At last, fumbling a little, she strapped it onto her wrist. "Thank you," she said, her voice rough.
Then, hastily, she cleared her throat. In a deliberate and very obvious effort to change the subject, she said, "Actually, there's something I've been meaning to ask you, too. Can you talk to Bendis for me? If she's willing, I'd like her to hunt around the Olympus sometime, and see if she can find who's listening in on the other end of those bugs."
Artemis stared at her. "You wait until now to bring that up? How long have those bugs been there already?"
"I had to wait until you found Bendis before I could ask at all!" she snapped. "I can't send you; there's already someone looking for you. Maybe even the same people. I don't know. Anyway, I'd have asked her last week, but…" She grimaced. "You know how that ended up."
"Yes." Artemis looked away guiltily. "I'm surprised you'd want me to talk to her at all," he admitted.
"Oh, don't you go getting all self-pitying too!" Itsuko exclaimed. "It's bad enough I have to—to go mothering Miyo and Beth. I refuse to hold your paw as well!"
He froze for a moment, then gave a quick snort of laughter. "Terrible thought," he muttered.
"Isn't it?" She smiled at him, then sobered. "Artemis, Bendis has made her choice," she told him. "It's high time you patch things up with her, don't you think? Trusting her with a job you can't do yourself should be a good start."
He was silent for some time. "Maybe," he said grudgingly.
Beth found a shady spot on the bank of the stream and sat down. The other girls were talking and laughing some distance off, but for the moment she felt no impulse to join them.
Some time passed. The stream was shallow and fast-moving; the chuckling of the water and the sound of far-off birdsong were very peaceful. There was a sweet scent in the air, coming from some plant she could not identify. She felt relaxed, sleepy.
At last she heard what she had been waiting for: the faint, deliberate rustling sound of a small body pushing its way through the bushes toward her. She did not look back; did not move at all. "Hello, Bendis-chan," she said softly.
There was no reply. The rustling came again, then fell to silence. She felt a small body arranging itself at her side, a few centimetres away.
They sat, staring down at the water. Neither spoke. The sound of the other girls' voices in the distance fell away gradually, until the only noise left was the stream below them. A pair of birds flew into a tree just across the stream with a flurry of wings and began to call to each other. A dragonfly skimmed across the water.
"Sometimes," Bendis said, so quietly that Beth could hardly hear her, "sometimes you frighten me, Beth-chan."
"I mean, you never seem to think about things. You just act, and assume it'll all work out somehow…"
"Go with the flow," Beth whispered, staring into the water. "You told me that."
"But where will the flow lead you?" asked Bendis. "If you don't look where you're going before you dive in, you could end up…anywhere."
"So, what then?" she asked in reply. "Are you saying I should hold back, be afraid to get my feet wet?"
"No," the cat answered. "But you could try looking before you leap. Pick a direction that's going to take you where you want to go."
"Maybe. I…" Beth shook her head. "I don't want to play word-games any more. Why, Bendis-chan? Why didn't you tell me it was a wild-goose chase? All right, yes, I know, I didn't want to hear you…but afterward? Why didn't you tell me then?"
Bendis was silent for a minute. "Those men at the warehouse," she said at last. "What were they doing? If they were really Sankaku, where did they get an 'M' Division Opal?"
Beth shook her head. "I don't know."
"Neither do I. There was something strange going on there, Beth-chan. You may not have rescued any Senshi, but I think you stumbled onto something important all the same. And that means it wasn't a wild-goose chase after all, doesn't it?"
"You should still have told me," Beth said stubbornly.
"I suppose so." The cat sighed. "I may come close, but I'm not perfect."
Beth smiled, finally. "That," she said, "makes two of us."
When the two of them finally emerged from the bushes it was to a changed scene. A blanket was spread out on the grass, and Miyo was unloading food from a picnic hamper. Dhiti was helping her, stealing a bite every now and then, and talking almost constantly. Suzue was unpacking paper plates and napkins, while Itsuko brought a cooler full of drinks from the van. Iku was hanging back a little, watching, apparently unable to take her eyes off the food. Beth, having tasted Miyo's cooking before, could not blame her.
Beth and Bendis exchanged glances. "Where did they get all this stuff?" Beth wondered. "I don't remember seeing any of this in the van."
"Did you look?" asked Bendis logically.
Beth was about to reply when Miyo called out, "Okay, everyone! Dig in!" She promptly forgot what she had been going to say. The blanket became a swarm of activity, and the two lost no time in joining in.
Dhiti found a position at one corner of the spread, took a plate, and began to help herself. She had to avoid the chicken—Bendis had staked out the plate, and was growling and snapping at anyone else who tried to touch it—but there was enough that nobody seemed to mind. One of Hayashi's meals, even if only a light lunch, was something to savour.
As she settled back to eat, she glanced around the clearing. This was kind of nice, she found herself thinking. To be out in the countryside for the day, surrounded by wild trees and bushes. There were all kinds of growing things she'd never seen before; birds in the trees that never came near the city; even the stream had been a novelty. (Her pants were drying off quickly, thank goodness.) It had been a long time since she'd been outside Third Tokyo; not since that school trip, three years ago. But then they'd been under strict supervision.
The others seemed to like it too, she saw, studying the faces clustered around the food. Except maybe Suzue; she didn't really seem to approve of all this growing stuff. (And she had been so careful not to get wet, crossing the stream, that Dhiti had just had to splash her.) Or Iku, who was so tentative about everything that it was impossible to tell what she thought about anything at all.
At that thought, her eyes sought Iku out. The girl was an enigma, one that Dhiti longed to unravel. Even if she hadn't made that bet with Bendis last week, she would have found her fascinating. How could anyone be that shy?
A shyness which, she noticed a moment later, had its own penalties. She leaned over and nudged Iku on the arm, and murmured, "You have to help yourself, you know. If you keep holding back like that, there isn't going to be anything left."
Iku jerked at the touch with a gasp, and Dhiti shook her head, tut-tutting patiently. "Now, now. I'm not going to bite you," she said. "I already told you that once."
The other girl relaxed slowly. "Sorry," she mumbled. "I'm sorry…"
"What for? You haven't done anything wrong," Dhiti told her. "Here, have a drink.—On second thought," she went on, a sudden glint in her eye, "maybe you have done something wrong. Kodama Iku-chan, you have been found guilty of diffidence above and beyond the call of duty. As punishment, I sentence you to walk the plank!" She gave a melodramatic sigh. "Now, if only I had a parrot—"
"I…I can't swim," Iku said in a tiny voice. "Do I really have to?"
"Absolutely!" Dhiti winked. "Next time we come across a pirate ship, you're in big trouble."
Itsuko gave them another twenty minutes, then clapped her hands for attention. "All right, everybody," she called out. "It's time to get down to business. We've only got a few hours before we have to start back, so don't waste time, please."
Dhiti shot up to her feet, and saluted smartly. "Aye-aye, ma'am!" she rapped. "Awaiting your orders, ma'am!"
Itsuko took absolutely no notice. "All of you, transform, please," she said briskly. "Artemis and I have worked out a few exercises we want you to try."
The girls exchanged glances. Then Miyo stood and pulled out her henshin wand. Moments later, the other four joined her.
"JUPITER POWER, MAKE-UP!"
"VENUS POWER, MAKE-UP!"
"MERCURY POWER, MAKE-UP!"
"URANUS PLANET POWER, MAKE-UP!"
"Mars power, make-up…"
As the air filled with a whirlwind of light and colour, Itsuko had to close her eyes. The reminder was too sharp: what she had been, and what she could no longer be. Then, grimly refusing to give in, she opened her eyes once more and looked for the one she knew would be among them. Her replacement.
To her surprise, when she saw the girl standing before her in her short red skirt, she felt none of the pain and bitterness she had expected. There was only a brief moment of wistfulness…and then, somehow, a quiet satisfaction.
The role, the mantle, might have passed from her. But there was still a defender; still a champion of the planet of fire. And that was enough.
Even as she realised this, the moment changed again. The five Senshi had formed into a rough line in the clearing; and as she watched, the scene suddenly became a kind of impromptu ceremony.
"I am Sailor Jupiter!" the tallest girl cried, in a voice that made the clearing ring. There was pride in her voice, and strength; an echo of thunder, and the rushing of the wind in the trees. "Daughter of the Royal House of Jupiter, and Senshi in the courts of Crystal Tokyo and the Silver Millennium! With the authority of the Planet of Thunder, I will fight in the name of the Queen!"
The others stared at her, wide-eyed, for an instant. Then, by her side, a dark-skinned girl cried out, "I am Sailor Mercury, heir to the power and the authority of the Planet of Water!" Her words were clear and strong; there was the pulse of the sea in her voice, and a quicksilver glitter like ice in her eyes. "Chosen to be a Senshi of the Queen, I will fight in her name, on behalf of the planet Mercury!"
"I am Sailor Uranus," declared the girl next to her, softer, but no less determined. The sky reflected in her cool grey eyes as she said, "With the blessings of the Lady of the Moon, and the strength and the dominion of the planet Uranus, I will fight in the name of the Queen, and at her command!"
There was a slight pause then, and everyone's eyes went to the fourth in line, a tall girl with her hair in a long braid. But she hesitated for only a moment before saying, "I am Sailor Mars. And—" She did break off then, stumbling over her words, and swallowed heavily. "I'll fight," she finished in a low voice. "In the name of the Queen. I'll fight." And in her words, thin and distant but present nonetheless…was there a hint of fire?
So to the last. The fifth Senshi's head was erect, her voice crisp and proud, and the gold tiara on her brow glittered in the sunlight as she declaimed, "I am Sailor Venus: a champion of justice, and guardian of the power and the authority of the Planet of Love. In the name of Venus and the honour of the Queen, I will right wrongs and triumph over evil!"
As she finished speaking, a silence seemed to fill the clearing. Itsuko stood facing the five girls. Some kind of answer was required; an acknowledgement of their oaths, at the very least. But what could she say? Did she even have the right to reply at all?
"I cannot answer you in the name of the Queen," she told them softly. "Much though you all deserve it. I can only say that if she were here, I think she would be proud. And that I think that all of you are worthy to be called Senshi. I'm proud of you. All of you."
She started to turn away—there was a suspicious lump in her throat—then looked back at them. "One more thing," she said. "I don't think any of you would doubt it anyway; but at least I can tell you that the Queen will return. I've seen it, in the Fire and in my dreams. There will be a Sailor Moon to lead you once again." She studied their faces, and added, "I don't know who she'll be. But I don't think you'll have to wait much longer."
The five Senshi watched as Itsuko turned to speak to Artemis for a moment. "Sailor Moon!" exclaimed Venus. "At last. I wonder what she'll be like?"
"I wonder if she'll think she's a cat?" said Mercury innocently.
Venus gave her an irritated look. "I wonder if she'll think she's a cat-burglar?" she shot back.
"Now, now," Mercury purred. "There's no need to be…catty."
The other girl glared at her for a moment longer, then suddenly laughed. She raised one hand, her fingers hooked like claws, and made a tearing gesture. "Meow," she said.
Mercury clutched her heart dramatically. "She got me!" she cried out, windmilling her arms wildly and almost catching Mars in the eye. "Oops. Sorry, Mars-chan. Didn't see you there. Better be careful, though, or the dreaded killer pussy-cat here'll get you."
To her delight, Sailor Mars actually smiled back. "If she does, will she have to walk the plank?" she asked.
"Hmm, very probably, I believe. Ah, but enough of this gay banter. Come, my lovely but slow-witted friends—" Mercury dropped into a sinister accent and draped an arm about Venus and Mars' shoulders. "Let me ply you with thick Turkish coffee and bedazzle your deepest secrets from you with my effortless charm. Tell me, where is the secret enemy base, and how long until the aliens launch their invasion fleet…?"
A short distance away, Jupiter and Uranus stood watching. Sailor Jupiter was grinning. Sailor Uranus was not. "What…is she talking about?" asked Uranus, baffled.
Jupiter shrugged. "You know Dhiti-chan. She's not talking about anything. She's just talking."
"It's not right," Uranus said, shaking her head. "A minute ago she was swearing allegiance to the Queen. Now she's talking about…about crazy things! If she can't take something that important seriously—"
"Umm. Sometimes I wonder, though. She's always performing, one way or another. So maybe she's being silly now because she takes it so seriously…" Jupiter scowled. "No, skip it. I'm not making sense. Anyway—" She shifted uncomfortably, looking for a way to change the subject. Then she brightened. "Talking about swearing allegiance, what was that you were saying before? 'With the blessings of the Lady of the Moon'?" She laughed. "Better be careful there, Suzue-san. You almost sounded like one of the Loonies."
Uranus gave her a long, thoughtful look. "Did I?" she said. "Well, we can't have that, can we?"
"All right," Itsuko told them all. "We'll keep this fairly basic at first. I want you to work in pairs for now: Jupiter with Mercury, and Uranus with Venus. I'll take care of Sailor Mars."
At her side, Artemis spoke up. "We'll leave physical combat training for later. To begin with, I want you to get more experience with your attacks. There are three things I want you to look at to start with: accuracy, speed and strength. Pick a rock or a tree and use it for target practice. Once you get the hang of it, try hitting it while you're on the move. Then try hitting a moving object: one of you throw a target and the other, try to hit it. That will also test your attack speed and reaction time.
"Finally, you need to practise with your attack strength. How hard, or how softly, can you hit a target? Itsuko and I will offer tips where we can. And Jupiter, too; you may have lost access to your higher attacks, but apart from that I expect you remember well enough."
Jupiter gave a wry grin. "Oh, yes."
"All right, then. Any questions? Good. We'll give it a hour or so, and see how you're doing. So—to work, everyone!"
Uranus watched as the last of her stones bounced away through the grass. "Well," she said, "I suppose there's no question about your accuracy or reaction time."
Venus smirked. "Thanks."
"I'm not sure about strength, though. You can hit targets, but you're not actually doing anything to them. It's hardly an attack at all."
The other girl's face fell. "Um," she said. "But it's, you know, just a chain. It…chains things. What do you expect? I've talked it over with Bendis-chan, and I can knock small objects around with it, but it's not like I can split boulders or anything. If I could just work out how to do the Crescent Beam thing I'd—"
"Have you tried?" said a voice at her side. She looked down and saw Artemis. "Splitting boulders, I mean," he added.
"Err. Not as such. There weren't too many boul—"
"Well, try it now, then!"
Venus shrugged. "Sure. VENUS CHAIN TH—" She saw their expressions and rolled her eyes. "Oh, all right. VENUS LOVE-ME CHAIN!"
The chain spun forth, hissing and arcing with energy. It struck the rock she'd been aiming for dead-centre and skittered off, throwing sparks in all directions.
"You see?" she complained.
"Lady Aino used her chain as an attack," said Uranus slowly.
"Well, maybe I got the low-power model, then," Venus retorted. "It's like that when I hit a vitrimorph, too. Just a few sparks. On the other hand—" She grinned. "If I can wrap it around a vitrimorph, I can hold it pretty well. Maybe the rest of you guys can finish it off then. And me and Bendis have worked out all sorts of tricks, too—"
"Low-powered, but versatile," muttered Artemis. "Why does that sound familiar?"
"It didn't look all that low-powered to me," Uranus objected. "When she fires it, there's all that light and—"
"That's mostly the power lattice discharging as the chain forms," the cat replied absently. "Still, it's got a fair bit of latent energy bound up there, all right. I suspect an enemy would have to be incredibly powerful to be able to break the chain, once formed."
"Really?" said Venus, delighted. "Cool!"
Artemis winced. "Anyway," he said, "you two are getting side-tracked. Uranus, it's your turn. I've noticed that it seems to take you a few seconds to recover after using your attack. You need to modulate your power, so that you're not draining yourself dry every time you use it. Now, I want you to start by…"
"Try it again," Itsuko ordered. She watched intently as Sailor Mars began the attack, and at the same time tried to reach out with her mind to feel what the girl was doing. She saw the swirl of energy, sensed the veins of power that spiralled in toward their target. Like ants running across her skin, a chill of recognition down her spine…
The light of the Burning Mandala faded, and she stepped forward to examine the target: a small piece of dead wood. It was barely warm. "Nothing, again," she announced.
The eighth attempt had been the same as the first. Nothing Mars could do seemed to affect the outcome in the slightest. If she worked harder at her attack, the lines of energy in the Mandala glowed brighter—on the third try, she put so much force into it that it became almost too bright to look at, and left her reeling from the strain—but the end result never varied.
Mars flinched away from her words. "I'm sorry—" she began.
Itsuko waved her quiet, shaking her head. "I don't understand it," she said. "I can feel the power, sense it building up…but I can't see where it's going." She looked down at the piece of wood ruefully. "It's certainly not coming out as heat."
For a moment, groping for ideas, she toyed with the possibility that the problem was Iku's transformation: that the girl had less power because she was using Younger Mars' henshin wand, the wand of a Senshi-in-training. Itsuko still had her own wand, of course. But the idea made no sense; the difference between a Younger and an Elder Senshi was in training, ability and authority. The two wands were ceremonially different, but functionally they were identical.
All the same, she wondered if she should pass the elder wand on to Iku. Itsuko could not use it herself any more, and heaven knew it might give the girl some confidence. It was still lying in her desk drawer back at the Olympus, she remembered. It would be a terrible wrench to let it go, but—
"What about the Opal, though?" said Bendis from nearby, interrupting her train of thought. "I told you what she did to that."
"Yes." She pulled her attention back to the subject. "That's going to be harder to test, though. I don't keep spare Opals up my sleeve."
"You could get her to aim for the van," Bendis suggested. Then she blinked. "Wait a minute. Maybe not."
"Maybe not," echoed Itsuko dryly. "Unless you want to walk home. I'll think about it, though. Next time we can try to check it out. But for now…" She frowned, and looked back at Mars. "Suppose we work on some physical training, instead? Trust me, getting a few good combat manoeuvres down can be a big help in a fight."
They might also, she did not say aloud, help the girl to get a little more self-confidence. Indeed, she half-expected her to back away from the suggestion. But Mars only nodded obediently. Itsuko considered for a moment longer, picking some simple moves that she ought to be able to handle, and they began.
The next hour proved an exercise in frustration. Mars was willing enough, and doggedly persistent; she threw herself into the exercise with a determination that Itsuko had to admire. But she was strangely awkward. Not outright clumsy, as Sailor Moon had been so long ago, but stiff and unresponsive. She hesitated before making any move that was even faintly offensive, and when Itsuko aimed any blow at her in return, even one that would obviously miss, she either shied away from it or froze completely.
It did not help that Bendis hovered on the sidelines, making continuous helpful suggestions. Before long, Itsuko could cheerfully have throttled the cat. She began to gain a whole new appreciation for Artemis' attitude toward his great-granddaughter.
At last, her temper wound almost to the breaking point, she slipped. She had reverted to lessons that were as basic as she could think of; she was aiming a simple, direct blow at Mars' shoulder, moving exaggeratedly slowly, her body language plain and clear. All Mars had to do was take hold of her wrist and pull, stepping aside as she did so, and Itsuko's own momentum would leave her sprawling on the ground.
A ten-year-old could have done it. Iku had failed four times already.
Perhaps it was her frustration that made it happen. Perhaps it was her irritation at Bendis. But as she moved in, her arm swinging forward—as Mars reached out to seize it, for a wonder looking as if she were about to get it right—Itsuko's foot skidded in the grass. Just a few centimetres, but it was enough to throw her off balance. Her fist aimed itself, much faster than she had intended, directly at Mars' face.
Later, she was not sure if she had imagined it. But in the last instant before the impact, she half-thought she saw Mars stand frozen, a curious look of resignation on her face, and close her eyes and wait patiently for the blow to land.
Then the sound of fist meeting flesh was in her ears, and Mars was lying on the ground in front of her. The girl never made a sound. She simply lay there, cradling her cheek.
Later, Itsuko would think about what she might have seen. Later, she would realise that the blow could not even have been very painful, not to a Senshi. For now, shame and remorse were what mattered. "Are you all right?" she cried out, kneeling at the girl's side and reaching out to probe gently at the injury. Mars jerked away from her hand, and she withdrew it quickly.
"I'm fine," Mars said in a somewhat muffled voice. Then, absurdly, she added, "I'm sorry."
"You're sorry?!" exclaimed Itsuko. "What for? It was my fault! My foot slipped and I—" She broke off and counted silently to ten. "I'm the one who's sorry, Iku-chan," she said quietly. "You didn't do anything wrong. In fact, it looked as if you were about to get it right."
Sailor Mars was silent.
"We can stop now, if you like. I won't be upset. Or…if you're willing, we can carry on."
Itsuko waited. The silence seemed to stretch unbearably. At last Mars looked up and said, almost inaudibly, "All right. I'll go on."
They tried the exercise again; and rather to Itsuko's surprise the girl did it perfectly the first time. She demonstrated another move, slightly more complex, and Mars got that one right the first time, too. The rest of their session was a roaring success.
It bothered Itsuko a little, though, that something in the Senshi's face had changed. Before, she had been an open book, her nervousness and lack of confidence plain. Now that she was getting it right, Itsuko would have expected her to look satisfied, at least. Instead, there was nothing at all. Her expression was blank, closed. Whatever Kodama Iku was feeling, she was keeping it firmly to herself.
At around mid-afternoon, Artemis called a break. The five Senshi collapsed on the grass, breathing hard and talking about what they'd been doing. Itsuko went to the van and brought out more drinks.
Mercury lay back contentedly. She'd never quite realised how stern a taskmaster Hayashi could be. The attack practice had been fun at first, but after two solid hours it became pretty hard work. Being able to relax at last was sheer bliss.
"So how are you finding it?" said a voice at her side. She turned her head lazily and saw Artemis.
"Not quite what I was expecting," she admitted. "…You know, it's weird how fast you can get used to seeing a cat talk."
"I wouldn't know," he answered dryly. "What were you expecting, then? An automated assault course? A secret underground training room where you fight against robotic enemies?"
"Hey, that'd be cool." Mercury lifted herself up onto her elbows. "Did the old Senshi really have something like that?"
Artemis chuckled. "No, not really. In the Silver Millennium, each Senshi taught her successor everything she knew. That included combat training, of course. A Senshi in training was expected to invent a new application of her power before she could take over from her Elder." He blinked at her slowly. "The Outer Senshi used to do survival training on Io, now I think of it. I suppose that's almost like an assault course in itself."
"Yeah? Hayashi mentioned something about Io, once. Is it really that bad there?"
Artemis shrugged. "That's what they say. I never went there myself."
"Rats." Mercury saw something moving out of the corner of her eye and hitched herself up onto one elbow to look. "What is that girl doing now?"
"Who?" Artemis looked around. "Ah. I've given up trying to understand those two, I'm afraid."
"Oh, now you're just being grouchy. She's—what is she doing?"
Some distance away, Bendis and Sailor Venus were sitting in the middle of the clearing. They appeared to be arguing about something; but even as Mercury watched, Venus rolled onto all fours, drew herself up into a half-crouch, and took a curious little hop forward, catching herself on her hands.
They argued some more—Venus seemed to be objecting to something—and then, to Mercury's lasting delight, the girl crouched again and suddenly exploded across the clearing in an eerie, half-feline motion: landing on her hands and then launching herself again with a quick thrust of her legs. She ended with a somersault that left her on her feet, one fist outstretched to strike an unseen opponent.
"Cat training," Mercury said. Her grin was so wide that it almost hurt. "She's doing cat training."
Artemis muttered something incomprehensible.
"Oh, come on. Don't you think it's adorable? At least you could go over there and show them the right way to do it."
"I don't think so."
"Spoilsport." Mercury got to her feet. "I can't let this go, though. I just can't."
"You're going to stop her?" Artemis sounded almost hopeful.
"Don't be silly." Mercury gave him a beatific smile. "I'm going to embarrass her."
She started toward the two, noticing as she went that everyone else seemed to be watching as well. Perfect, she thought; these things always went better with an audience.
As she approached, Venus dropped to her knees in the grass. She and Bendis were arguing again. "—Told you, I don't want to do the cat thing any more," Venus was saying.
"Yes, but I didn't think you actually meant it," Bendis told her. "After all, why on earth not? Who wouldn't want to be a cat?"
"Just about everybody! Have you seen the way everyone else looks at me when I do that stuff?"
"They're jealous. Come on, none of the others can do even half of what I've taught you! And you have to admit, a lot of those moves have been useful. It would be a total waste to let it all go now—"
"Yeah, well, maybe if I'm not trying to act like a cat all the time I'll be able to—"
"Bendis is right," Mercury interrupted. "It would be a terrible waste for you to stop now."
The two looked around, startled. Then Bendis said, in a gratified tone, "I'm glad somebody can see the—"
"After all," Mercury went on, suddenly unable to keep the smirk off her face, "we wouldn't want to lose the team mascot, would we?"
There was a sudden silence. "Mascot?" repeated Venus.
"Of course! And such an adorable little kitty, too." Mercury laid a hand on Venus' head and began to stroke her hair. "See? Isn't she just the sweetest thing? Who's a perfect precious little kitty, hmm? Who's a sweet widdle adorable pussykins? Ohhh, she's so cute! C'mon, cat-girl, you know you like it. Purr for me!"
Venus stared at her, wide-eyed, and for a moment Mercury thought she had overplayed the joke. Then, suddenly, Venus grinned. She arched her back, leaning into the pressure of Mercury's stroking. "Purr," she said in a sultry voice.
"There, you see? I knew it. Ooh, you are a sweetie-pie. Do you want me to scratch your ears? Do you? Awww, that's so adorable. I've gotta find you a ball of string, that'd be just too perfecYAAAHHH!"
Suddenly, a hand seized Mercury's ankle in a vice-like grip. She looked down in shock, and had a bare instant to see the grin on Venus' face. Then the other girl surged upward, lifting her in one mighty heave…and Sailor Mercury found out what it was like to fly.
A second later, she found out what it was like to splash down face-first in the stream.
She struggled back to the surface, spitting out a mouthful of water, mud and some unidentifiable weed, and saw a whole row of Senshi grinning back at her. "O-o-o-kay…" she mumbled.
"Now that," said Bendis in a tone of great satisfaction, "she had coming."
"She just doesn't know when to stop, does she?" Itsuko was not laughing. Not quite.
"Dhiti-chan? Never," said Jupiter fondly. "She doesn't even know when not to start. You just have to learn when to thump her, and when to ignore her." After a moment she added, "You're off to a good beginning there, actually."
Jupiter grinned. "When she saluted you, and you paid no attention. At school, it took some of her teachers weeks to learn that."
Itsuko smiled back. "I had a lot of practice, learning to cope with a certain odango-haired princess."
"So," said Mercury. "Tell me about this cat-training thing."
"Yeah, right," said Venus.
"Oh, come on. I teased you a little and you got me back, and I promise I won't mortally humiliate you again for at least a day, okay? But I am interested in all this training you've been doing. Honestly."
"Oh-ho," said Bendis. "I knew the rest of you would see the light eventually."
Mercury grinned. "I do seem to remember a certain cat telling me she didn't think much of Artemis' methods, once."
Bendis rolled her eyes. "Well, look at all this stuff he's got you doing today! It's so…basic. What you really need is a little more creativity."
Schooling her expression into one of careful attention, Mercury said, "Creativity? What did you have in mind?"
Venus shook her head. "You have no idea what you're letting yourself in for," she told Mercury sadly. All the same, there was an unmistakable glint of interest in her eye.
"Well," said Bendis, ignoring her, "I did have one or two thoughts about that attack of yours. Ice Spear, right? Tell me, is there any kind of recoil when you throw one?"
"Well, you're shooting a lot of ice off in one direction. Is there a recoil in the other direction? Does it push you back?"
"I…hadn't noticed. Why?" Mercury blinked. This was interesting.
"Oh, I just thought…say you're making a long jump. If you fire your attack downward, would that give you any extra lift? Could you get more distance out of it that way?"
Mercury stared at Venus. Venus stared back.
"Let's find out," Mercury said.
She stood up and glanced around. Nobody seemed to be paying any particular attention. With a quick nod, she took a deep breath, ran forward, and jumped as high and as hard as she could. In mid-air, she yelled out, "ICE SPEAR!" and saw the burst of ice lance downward.
Moments later, she hit a tree, face-first.
When the ringing in her ears subsided, she picked herself up and walked back toward Bendis and Venus, brushing off pieces of bark and ignoring their laughter with as much dignity as she could muster.
"No recoil," she reported coldly. "Definitely no recoil."
"First rule of cat-training," giggled Venus. "Look before you leap."
"No, but seriously," Bendis said. "It could have worked."
"That's a great comfort, thanks," said Mercury, rubbing her nose. "I'll try to remember it always. 'It could have worked.'" She blinked suddenly. "I wonder what would happen if I fired upward, instead?"
"Um. Better step out of the way afterward, before it comes down again."
"Not straight up, dummy!" Mercury turned and checked that there was nobody else in the way. Then she launched her Ice Spear again, firing it upward at a sharp angle.
It travelled along a steep parabola, rising perhaps thirty metres before falling to strike the ground not far away. "Hmm," she said. "Not too bad. I think I could hit something on the other side of a wall with that."
"If you can get the aim right," said Bendis dubiously.
"No, wait a minute," Venus said. She got up and went to stand a little behind Mercury. "Do that again, but aim a bit lower," she ordered. "I want to try something."
Mercury shrugged, and fired her Spear again. As she did so, she heard Venus shout out her own attack.
The Ice Spear was a few metres off the ground when Venus' Love-Me Chain struck it. The ice exploded with a sharp crack. A hailstorm of splinters and slivers hissed down into the meadow in front of them.
Mercury and Venus stepped forward gingerly to look. The shards had come down hard and fast, and the turf had been torn to shreds over a wide area in front of them.
Venus glanced over at Mercury. "Could be worth remembering that one," she said casually.
Mercury gave a slow nod. "Could be," she echoed.
"You see?" said Bendis. "A little creativity, that's all you need. I told you my training was better."
"You'd better end the break soon," said Artemis. "Otherwise they're going to kill themselves relaxing."
"That could be worth watching…no, maybe not." Jupiter rubbed her legs with a mock-groan. "More exercise. Hooray."
"Tired already?" Itsuko smiled. "And you a senshi."
"Yeah, well, you haven't just been on the move for two hours!" Jupiter retorted. Then she blinked. "Yes, you have, and you're not tired. Damn, I didn't think I was that out of condition."
"Well, I am teaching classes at a gymnasium," Itsuko purred.
"Okay, that does it. I'm going to have to start martial arts training again."
Itsuko raised her eyebrows. "Why did you ever stop?"
"I never did it at all, this life. Never even thought of it. I wonder why not?" Jupiter's face grew pensive.
Itsuko remained silent. Jupiter looked at her, and read in her face the answer that her friend did not want to say. She looked away quickly, and said, "Well, anyway. Starting tomorrow—"
"Just be careful," Artemis warned her. "You may remember the moves, but if you try them without some serious training you're likely to pull muscles."
"Oh, joy." Jupiter rubbed her legs once more and grimaced. "This is going to be so much fun."
Itsuko gave them all a couple more minutes, and then clapped her hands for attention. "All right," she said when the five Senshi had gathered. "The afternoon's getting on, so let's not waste time. Now that you've got a better idea what your powers can do, Artemis and I thought we'd give you a chance to practise your skills with a little…contest."
"Oh, great," Mercury muttered.
"We'll split you into two teams," Artemis said. "This arm of the forest is enclosed by a bend in the stream. We'll use that as the contest boundary. One team will go into the forest; we'll give you a five-minute start. Then the others will go after you. The last team standing wins."
"This is an exercise in strategy and tactics," Itsuko told them. "But it's also an exercise in judgement and the careful use of your powers. Be careful, please; I don't want anyone getting hurt. Low-power attacks only; by preference, don't use your attacks at all. Experience with hand-to-hand combat will do you good. Remember, a few bumps are one thing; serious injuries are another."
"Everyone clear?" said Artemis. "Stay in the forest, but don't cross the stream. Low-power attacks or hand-to-hand only. Out-thinking the other team should be just as important as out-fighting them."
"Any questions?" Itsuko asked. There were none. "All right. Let's get you split into teams—"
"You and me, Hayashi?" said Mercury.
"No," said Artemis before Jupiter could reply. "You two know each other too well. Let's make it…Jupiter and Uranus on one team, and Mercury, Venus and Mars on the other. An astronomical split," he finished, sounding pleased with himself.
Jupiter shrugged. "Who goes first?" she asked.
Itsuko grinned, and pulled out a coin. "Heads or tails?" she said.
"Heads," Itsuko announced a moment later. "Mercury, Venus, Mars…you have five minutes. Go!"
"Wait a minute," protested Mercury. "You said strategy and tactics. Don't we get any time to work out what we're going to do?"
"Combat strategy," said Itsuko, still grinning. "Think on your feet. You now have four minutes and forty-five seconds left."
Venus swore. "Come on, you two, let's go!" she said. The three of them disappeared into the trees.
"Isn't this a bit unfair?" asked Uranus diffidently.
"Not at all," said Artemis. "How often do you expect to have time to plan out your strategy when an enemy's attacking? You need to be able to think fast and plan on your feet."
"The best way to get that skill is experience," added Itsuko. "I might point out, for example, that right now you have time to be planning your own strategy. Unless you'd rather stand around talking—"
"Excuse me." Jupiter grabbed Uranus and hauled her away. "Let's plan," she hissed.
Itsuko and Artemis waited until the two were out of earshot before they laughed.
"Right," said Venus rapidly as they ran through the trees. "This is going to be tough. Obaasan will be hard to beat; she's pretty strong and experienced. Uranus is pretty strong, too, and she's smart. We need to take them by surprise somehow."
"Okay," Mercury said, making silent note of the 'smart' comment. "Hide in the bushes and jump them as they come past, then? Or we could use your chain to trip them."
"The chain'll only work if they're running, and they're bound to be ready for a sneak attack from the bushes. I think we should hit them from above."
Mercury glanced up. "Won't they be expecting that, too?"
"Probably, but we don't have a lot of time to get fancier. Anyway, I was reading this psychology book the other day…people tend not to look up all that much. If their attention is split between the bushes around them and the trees above, they'll subconsciously pay less attention to above."
"Interesting choice of reading matter, there."
"Oh, well, I've been trying to study things I…you know. Might need to know as a Senshi. Most of it's pretty dull. Anyway—" She grinned suddenly, and there was a gleam in her eye. "Leaping down from above has got to be cooler, don't you think?"
Mercury hesitated. Then she grinned back. "You have a point there. But I have an idea that might help—"
"What do you think they'll do?" asked Uranus.
"Well, one thing Dhiti-chan isn't, is subtle. If it was just her, I'd expect something very obvious…but she can be hard to stop once she gets going, and she's very fast. I'm not sure about Venus, though. She always seems so unpredictable…"
"Yes." Uranus remembered the sight of Venus standing on top of a crane in the warehouse yard. "She likes to take people by surprise, I think. Maybe from above."
Jupiter thought about it. "Yeah, that does sound like her, doesn't it? I'm not sure about Dhiti-chan, though. She's not a great jumper…You know, I think we should be on the alert for a split attack. One from above, and one from the side."
"Well, yes. That would be the sensible thing, wouldn't it?" Uranus said, as if puzzled that Jupiter had taken so long to work it out.
Jupiter blinked at her, then said, "That just leaves Mars. I don't know if we can expect much from her, though. She, umm, doesn't seem to have much control over her powers—"
"Itsuko was teaching her hand-to-hand. She may be more threat than you might think."
Jupiter snorted. "Right. I've forgotten ten times more about fighting than she could pick up in a couple of hours. And that's just in this lifetime."
"Oh?" Uranus raised her eyebrows politely. "The history books say you had a reputation as a martial artist."
"Oh, boy. Don't mention those history books—"
"Five minutes," Itsuko called from behind them. "Your turn to move in, ladies."
"Right." Jupiter gave Uranus a quick, confident grin. "Don't worry about it, Suzue-san. We'll paste 'em."
She saw Uranus nod. Then the two turned and stepped in among the trees.
Silence enveloped them. There were no birds singing; even the insects seemed to have fallen mute. Jupiter felt a prickling sensation down her spine: excitement, and fear. She was in enemy territory. This was just an exercise…but all the same, it occurred to her that her and Uranus' uniforms would be very visible through the trees.
She tried to expand her senses, listening in all directions around her, straining to detect the slightest movement. She did her best to walk quietly, but every breaking twig or crackling leaf beneath her feet seemed ten times louder than normal. Uranus, not far behind her, sounded as if she were driving a bulldozer through the bushes.
No birds singing. But had they stopped as she and Uranus had entered the forest, or had they already been silent? She could hear her own breathing; it almost seemed to drown out the distant trickling of the stream.
This is ridiculous! she told herself. It's just a game! It was a comforting thought; but then she remembered that it was a live-fire game. She told herself that Itsuko and Artemis were out of their minds. A pity that she hadn't thought to tell them that before.
They moved on. The constant rustling and snapping of twigs underfoot began to get to her; she had been able to do much better once, she thought, irritated. The idea made her pause. Well, why not?
There was a rift in her mind, a gap that Artemis had opened in her memory. It had narrowed since then; but still, her last life lay just beyond the hole, available in perfect detail whenever she cared to look. Her last life, and the one before that, and maybe even others, further back yet, if she dared to look. Three lives were more than enough to remember, though; enough to know that she had roamed the giant forests of Callisto as a child, millennia before.
After a minute or two of concentration, she recalled the knack. It was surprisingly hard to force her body to move in the way she recalled. Her arms and legs felt stiff, heavy; her muscles complained at being forced in unfamiliar ways. She remembered what Artemis had been saying about using skills without the training to do them. Maybe the cat had had a point.
After another minute or two, she found that she was moving more easily. Not silently, but more quietly, at least. The sound of Uranus behind her seemed to redouble, and she wondered for a moment if she had seemed as noisy to the other girl.
Somewhere far away, a bird called. She jumped, then forced herself to relax and carry on. Not far ahead, between the trees, she caught a glimpse of the stream. Thick bushes lined the water. She turned to signal to Uranus—and in that moment, she saw a flash of white from the corner of her eye.
There! High in a tree, almost hidden by thick foliage. And a glimpse of orange; it was Venus, sure enough.
She stepped back into cover and waited. When Uranus joined her, she pointed to where she had seen Venus and made a 'V' sign. The other girl nodded, and Jupiter whispered, "Circle around. Cover me from the side. I'll take care of Venus."
Uranus nodded again and slipped away. Jupiter waited for a minute to give her time to get into position, then started forward again.
She walked past the tree slowly, holding her breath, waiting for the moment. Then it came: a sudden stirring in the branches above and behind her, and a voice shouting, "VENUS LOVE-ME CHAIN!"
At the first sound, she was already moving. A quick dodge to the left, and then she whirled and shouted her own attack: "SUPREME THUNDER!" At the last moment she remembered to keep it low-powered.
A startled yelp came from above. The Love-Me Chain went wide. Then—oh, satisfying sight!—Sailor Venus fell headlong from the tree, clutching her leg. She twisted in mid-air, trying to land on her feet, but did not quite make it, and hit the ground in a flurry of flying limbs.
Jupiter hurried up to her, the exercise momentarily forgotten. "Are you all right—" she began.
Another voice shouted from above. A huge bolt of ice struck the ground, bare centimetres from where she was standing.
When she could breathe again, she looked up into the tree. Sailor Mercury was grinning down at her. She must have been standing in the tree, hidden behind Venus, all along, Jupiter realised faintly.
"Bang," said Mercury. "You're dead, Hayashi."
And so she was, she realised, chagrined. Venus had let herself be seen deliberately, as bait to draw her in. Taken out like an amateur! She shook her head. "You got me," she admitted.
(But where was Uranus? She must have backed off when she saw Jupiter go down so easily. Not a bad idea…she hoped. And what had happened to Sailor Mars?)
"Three against one, now," Venus said to Mercury, sounding very pleased with herself. "That should be easy."
Excuse me? "Two against one," Jupiter told her firmly. "I took you out too, remember."
"Hey, I'm still okay!"
"Oh? Try standing up, then tell me that."
Venus got up, an indignant look on her face. Then she squawked, and had to grab the tree to stay on her feet. "What did you do? I can't feel my leg!" she complained.
"Low-power shot," Jupiter said with a satisfied nod. "Give it half an hour and you'll be fine."
Mercury snickered. "Looks like a mutual knock-out." She clambered down out of the tree, a little awkwardly. "C'mon, let's get you two corpses back to the clearing. Then I can come back and beat Sailor Uranus."
"Right." Privately, Jupiter hoped that Uranus would give her a surprise of her own, but she did not say so.
They made their way out of the bushes, Jupiter and Mercury helping Venus walk. As they emerged, Itsuko raised an eyebrow, checked her watch, and made a note on a sheet of paper. For some reason, Jupiter found that particularly annoying. Her expression must have shown it; she saw Itsuko's lips twitch.
She and Venus sat down in the grass. Venus was still rubbing her numb leg. "Just leave it," Jupiter advised her. "When you get a king-sized case of pins and needles, you'll know it's almost better."
"Gee, thanks." Venus made a face at her.
"Well, wish me luck," Mercury told them. "I'll be back with Uranus in just a few minutes." She strode jauntily back into the bush.
Venus and Jupiter exchanged glances. They rolled their eyes as one.
Twelve seconds later, Sailor Mercury marched back out of the bush. Her hands were in the air. Sailor Uranus was right behind her, her finger pointed at Mercury's head in a 'gun' shape.
"This isn't fair!" Mercury protested as they emerged.
"Why not?" asked Uranus reasonably. "You made so much noise, it would have been hard to have missed you. All I had to do was wait for you to come back."
"Nuts." Mercury lowered her hands gracelessly and flopped to a seat beside Jupiter and Venus. In the background, Itsuko made another note.
As Sailor Uranus walked back into the trees, she had every expectation of finding Mars within a few minutes. After all, the other girl had been pretty hopeless at the warehouse on Wednesday, and no better during the vitrimorph attack the following day. The attack that had brought down the Opal seemed little use against people. Uranus rather thought that as soon as she found her, the game would be over.
The trouble was finding Mars. It was proving to be absurdly difficult. The exercise area that Itsuko had indicated was not that large—no more than a hundred metres wide at its largest—and she was sure that she had covered it thoroughly within ten minutes. It should have been easy; a girl in a red-and-white sailor costume ought to have stood out like a sore thumb.
It wasn't working out that way. The bushes along the edge of the clearing and down the stream bank were not all that thick, but she had covered them carefully all the same. She had looked up into the branches of every tree that seemed climbable. After half an hour of searching, she had run out of places to look; and there was no sign of Sailor Mars anywhere.
Well, she must simply have missed something. Patiently, Uranus turned and started to search all over again. In her mind's eye, she divided the area into small squares, and began to check each one off as she finished it. She could not help thinking, a little resentfully, that this would have been far easier if Itsuko had picked a more reasonable training spot.
Why bring them all out into the wilderness like this? Itagaki Suzue did not really approve of the countryside. It seemed pointless, and rather wasteful. If people wanted grass and trees, there were plenty of parks and gardens in Third Tokyo. She supposed that a certain amount of land was needed for growing crops, but apart from that, why not just build more cities?
Shaking her head, she moved on, patiently looking up into another tree and checking that there was nowhere among the branches where a Senshi could have stood unseen. Something brushed her leg and she looked down hastily, her heart pounding. A stalk of grass. She made a moue of annoyance. That was at least the fifth time. She was beginning to really detest these woods.
Nearly half-way through her second sweep, and still no sign of Mars. How could the girl be hiding so well?
She reached the stream, patiently checked in the bushes, then started back again. It occurred to her that Mars was actually rather good at going unnoticed. She always seemed to hang back, not taking part unless she had to, not even speaking unless someone spoke to her first. She might be rather good at hiding, too.
Well, no matter. She was still a Senshi. She was still dressed in white and brilliant red. And Sailor Uranus was still going to find her.
"Well, the sneak attack was Venus' idea," Mercury replied. "But it was my idea for both of us to do it, so I could take you out while Venus kept you busy. Worked pretty good, too, huh?"
"I suppose," said Jupiter grudgingly. "What happened to Mars, anyway? I never saw her at all."
"I'm not sure, actually," said Mercury. She was lying spread-eagled in the grass, looking totally relaxed. "We headed into the woods, found a good tree…"
"And when we looked around, she was gone," Venus finished. "She's pretty good at that. At the warehouse the other day, I couldn't see her at all." She rubbed at her leg as she spoke. "Hey, I think the feeling's coming back."
"Lucky old you," Mercury answered lazily. "Just in time for the next exercise."
Mercury smirked at her. "At least this time, maybe you won't be taken out with a single shot."
"Oh?" Venus eyed her for a moment. "And maybe this time you won't need helping up a tree, either."
Mercury sat bolt-upright, a glint in her dark eyes. "And maybe," she said carefully, "we'll be on different teams next time. Just so we can, y'know, see what's what. And who's who."
Venus gave her a long, thoughtful look in return. "Wouldn't that be interesting?" she said.
"Are you sure you two don't want me to get you boxing gloves right now?" asked Jupiter, half-amused.
"What?" Mercury looked around with a start. "Oh! Don't be silly, Hayashi. I quit the boxing club ages ago, you know that."
"At the request of all the other members, wasn't it?"
"That…is a base libel, Hayashi—"
"You were in the boxing club?" asked Venus. The tension was gone from her body, and her grin looked real now, Jupiter noticed with relief.
"Well…not for very long. I was the only girl, and it was really hard to get any of the guys to fight me."
"She tended to lose her temper and hit below the belt when any of them touched her," added Jupiter helpfully.
"That is not true! Only once!"
"Three times, Dhiti-chan. Three."
"That's just a rumour Mizumoto spread! He was mad because I wouldn't go out with him—"
"They were sparring," Jupiter told Venus in a stage-aside. "He gave her a black eye, then asked her out with the next breath."
"Wow," said Venus. "Real romantic guy, huh?"
"I think he meant it as an apology."
Mercury sniffed. "That's what he said afterward, sure. Anyway, after that I quit, and tried to join the sumo club instead. They were even more unreasonable about the whole idea—"
"Sumo club?" said Jupiter. "I never heard about that."
"Don't you have the wrong, umm, build for that?" added Venus.
"Hey, I could have bulked up if they'd let me in!"
"Dhiti-chan, you couldn't bulk up if you went on a pure chocolate diet."
"Mm, chocolate. What an endearing idea, Hayashi."
"So what did you try after sumo?" prompted Venus, leaning back on one elbow.
"Oh, that was just last week. I haven't had a chance to try anything else yet. I was thinking about ikebana."
Venus choked. "Flower-arranging?" she said, laughing. "You want to go from sumo to flower-arranging?"
Mercury shrugged. "Well, I haven't tried it before. It might be interesting, who knows? Anyway, I've had enough of martial arts for a while. Fencing was fun, but most of the rest were kind of dull."
"Fun! You know, Hishida-sensei was really upset when you left the fencing team," Jupiter told her seriously. "You were one of the best in your grade, and the competition with Hibari School is coming up in another two weeks."
"Yeah, but…" Mercury sighed. "It was getting old, Hayashi. I'd been doing it for—what? Nearly a year and a half. That's forever! I was suffocating. Anyway, I needed the time to practise my oil-painting…"
Venus was laughing again. "Is there anything you haven't tried?" she asked.
Mercury grinned back; but there was a wry, half-rueful look on her face. "Far too much, Sailor Venus. Far too much. There's never enough time in the day…"
"Actually, speaking of time—" Jupiter glanced at her communicator-watch. "It's been over an hour. Whatever's keeping Uranus and Mars?"
"What? Wow, it has, too." Venus hopped to her feet, waving to Itsuko. (Her leg, Jupiter noticed, no longer seemed to trouble her at all.) "Hey, Itsuko-san!" she called. "How much longer are you going to let them go?"
Itsuko was standing over at the other side of the clearing, talking to Artemis and Bendis. At Venus' shout, she looked up, then nodded and walked slowly over to join them. "We've just been talking about that," she admitted. "I never expected anything like this. What do you think, Sailor Jupiter?"
"Me?" Jupiter was taken aback for a moment. Then she looked pleased. "Well…I think you may as well call it off. If Uranus hasn't found Mars yet, we could be waiting forever."
Itsuko nodded. "That's what I was thinking. Though—" she smiled for a moment—"I don't think that Sailor Uranus is going to be too happy about it."
Two hundred metres away, Sailor Uranus was standing in the midst of the trees, looking around and trying to keep from swearing at the top of her voice. She had not felt so frustrated in years. She had searched everywhere—everywhere—three times over, and there was simply no sign of Sailor Mars. She was beginning to think that the girl must have crossed the stream and left the contest boundary; and if that turned out to be true, Uranus was going to grab her skinny throat and—
Itsuko's call came as quite a relief. Uranus looked around and saw the woman standing at the edge of the woods, beckoning.
"Come on back," Itsuko ordered. "We're calling the exercise off."
Uranus gave a resigned wave to show her understanding. She was glad to hear the command; but at the same time, the words made her feel worse than ever. One way or another, they meant that she had failed.
"Sailor Mars!" Itsuko added, beginning to make her way into the bush. "Can you hear me? Uranus, you haven't seen her at all?"
"No!" Uranus replied angrily. "She just vanished somewhere. I think she might have—"
There was a rustling sound behind her. Uranus froze. Then, reluctantly, she turned around.
A girl was crawling gingerly out from under a bush that Uranus was certain she had checked several times. She was brushing a heap of piled-up leaves and bark chips off her legs. Against her skin—which was already rather dark, Uranus realised dismally—they made excellent camouflage. All the same, the girl would have stood out boldly, and Uranus would have spotted her in a moment, if it hadn't been for one thing.
She wasn't Sailor Mars.
"You detransformed," Uranus whispered. Kodama Iku looked up quickly, an uncertain look on her face. Uranus noticed that she was wearing dull-coloured, rather drab clothing, fairly old and well-worn. It, too, blended into the background rather well. "You…you cheated!"
Iku shrank away from the anger in her voice. Hardly aware of what she was doing, Uranus took a step toward her, fists clenched—and froze as a hand touched her shoulder.
"Cheated?" said Itsuko softly. "How is that, Sailor Uranus?"
"What?" Uranus looked around indignantly. "She detransformed! She isn't Sailor Mars any more! She—she—"
"And how is that cheating?" asked Itsuko.
Uranus stared at her, speechless.
"Rather a clever idea, actually," Itsuko went on musingly. "I wonder why I never thought of it myself? I can think of half a dozen situations when it would have helped, back in the old days. The surprise factor alone would have made it worthwhile…" She waved Iku over as she spoke. The girl approached cautiously, keeping a wary eye on her fellow Senshi's face.
"Maybe," Uranus said grudgingly. "But…"
She wanted to say, "It isn't fair!" A glance at Itsuko's face, half-smiling, showed her exactly how far that would get her. Iku had simply out-thought her, she realised dismally.
"We were going to call the exercise a draw," Itsuko went on. "After all, the winner was supposed to be 'the last team standing,' wasn't it? But I don't know…at the rate you were going, you might never have found Iku at all. Maybe we should declare her the winner."
Both girls' eyes widened. "But—!" Uranus burst out.
Itsuko laughed, and waved her silent. "Well, maybe not. After all, neither of you actually beat the other, did you? I think we'll call it a draw after all." She sighed, still chuckling. "Goodness knows, not much else today has gone to plan."
"Yes, Itsuko-san," said Uranus in a subdued voice. Iku echoed her words.
"Now come on, let's get back to the others. It's getting late, and we need to be heading back to town before too much longer."
As they walked back to the clearing, Itsuko pretended not to hear Uranus' sigh of relief.
Venus and Mercury broke into applause when Itsuko led the two girls out of the trees. They cheered louder when they heard how Iku had eluded Sailor Uranus. Uranus herself kept a tight-lipped silence. Iku looked as if she wanted to hide again.
Jupiter was less sanguine about the moral victory that the others seemed to think Iku had won; but she did not say so aloud. She did wonder what Itsuko was going to say about the exercise in private, after they got home.
Behind her, Uranus said, "They're right. I lost the match."
She turned, and saw not Uranus, but Suzue. "It was a draw," she corrected.
Suzue shook her head. "No. Suppose it was real, and we'd been hunting an enemy? I couldn't find her, which means she got away with the heart crystals, or star seeds, or whatever."
Jupiter thought about it, shrugged, and changed back to Miyo. "This enemy isn't after heart crystals."
"Still. She out-thought me."
"So you'll get her next time, then." A sudden thought made Miyo grin. "Anyway, why worry? You don't have to be smart. That's Sailor Mercury's job."
As one, they turned to look at Dhiti. Then Suzue gave one of her slow, rare smiles. "That's not exactly a comfort."
Miyo smiled back. "I know."
"So what do you think?" said Artemis to the woman standing at his side.
"They've got a lot of work to do," Itsuko replied with a grimace.
"Oh? I thought they were rather promising, actually."
She sighed. "Yes. They are."
He looked up, read her expression, and did not press the point. "Suppose we give them a few more minutes to unwind, then start back home?" he suggested instead. "You just drive. I'll handle analysing and debriefing them as we go."
Itsuko nodded. "Thanks." He started to walk off, but stopped as she said, "Artemis? They are promising. Really. I…I'm just a bit tired, that's all."
The cat nodded. "Sure," he said.
"Did you see the look on Uranus' face?" Dhiti crowed for the third time. "Oh, that was good! You really saved our bacon there, Iku-chan."
She, Beth and Iku had detransformed and were sitting by the drinks cooler. Beth and Dhiti were leaning back, nursing cups of orange juice. Iku had a cup of her own, but she was paying little attention to it. Instead, she was looking vastly uncomfortable at the attention the others were paying to her.
"Yeah," Beth agreed. "That was a good move. Suzue's pretty smart, and we might have had trouble surprising her. But—"
"What, are you saying I'm not smart too?" challenged Dhiti, sitting up sharply.
"Umm…" began Beth. "You did kind of walk into her trap."
"I—well, yes." Dhiti huffed in irritation. "But you'd have done the same thing if it's been you!"
"Er. Actually, I think Sailor Venus would, um, have her own way of doing things."
"Huh? You know, sometimes you talk like you and Sailor Venus are different people."
Beth looked surprised. "I do? I hadn't realised—" She broke off, looking at something over Dhiti's shoulder. "Whoops," she said, sounding relieved. "Bendis wants me. Talk to you later…"
She rolled to her feet in one smooth, easy motion and jogged off toward the cat. Dhiti watched her go, a faint frown on her face. Something about the way the girl had gotten up bothered her. Then, with a shrug, she put it from her mind. This was too peaceful a moment to spoil.
Instead she leaned back on one elbow and said to Iku, "So, what do you think of it so far?"
Iku stared at her. "Of what?" she asked at last.
Dhiti shrugged. "Being a Senshi. Training this afternoon. Whatever. I just wondered. I mean, none of us got a choice about this, did we?"
"I don't know. I…" Iku was silent for a few seconds. Then she said, "It doesn't matter."
"No. I…" Iku bit her lip. She looked as if, somewhere inside, she were wrestling with herself. "Bendis did ask me," she said in a low voice. "She asked if I wanted to stay knitting for the rest of—No. It doesn't matter." She fell silent, then added, "I'm sorry."
"You say that too much," Dhiti said absently. Then she said, "Knitting? You knit? I've never tried that. Is it fun?"
There was no answer. She looked at Iku, saw the confusion on the girl's face, and burst out, "What is wrong with you, anyway?"
Iku opened her mouth to reply, closed it again, and then said, "Sharma-san, I—"
"Dhiti-san. I—" She stumbled to a stop. Then, taking a deep breath, she said, "Why do you keep talking to me?"
Dhiti eyed her for a moment. Then she said seriously, "Don't you like it?"
"No—yes—I—" Again, Iku faltered to a halt. She could not meet Dhiti's eye; she stared fixedly at the ground. "I don't know," she said miserably after a few seconds. "Usually nobody else talks to me. Why do you?"
Dhiti did not answer at once. At last she said, "You know, you've got four new friends now. You're allowed to talk to your friends. It's a good thing; trust me on this." Iku did not answer, and she added slyly, "Besides, there's something about your smooth and easy-going manner that I just can't resist."
"Beth says she's my friend," Iku said slowly, completely ignoring this last. "But she hardly ever talked to me, before."
"Yes, but there's something you've got to understand," Dhiti told her solemnly. "Beth is a space alien from the planet Yorxtl. Hadn't you noticed that she's not like all the other girls?"
There was a long pause. Then Iku said, "Neither are you."
Dhiti blinked. "Excuse me," she said, "but was that an attempt at humour? Because if it was, I have to tell you that you're not allowed to do that. It's in the by-laws. I have it in writing from Hayashi and Itsuko-san. I'm the funny one, and you're the one who can't talk without stammering."
"Beth is funny sometimes," said Iku cautiously.
"Yes, but Beth is a space alien. Remember? C'mon, repeat after me: 'Beth is a space alien.' Come on, you can do it!"
"'B-Beth is a space alien.'"
"There, now. Doesn't that feel good?"
"I…no," Iku admitted. "I need to know, and you just keep making jokes."
"Hey," Dhiti said seriously. "Jokes are what I do. Don't knock it, all right? Everything's easier if you can keep a sense of humour." She sighed. "Look, I—I don't know, that's all. Maybe I'm just looking for a good straight man. Hayashi doesn't really fit the bill any more. Maybe you were so shy I thought you were irresistible. Maybe I just thought you could use a friend. Maybe…maybe a lot of things. Does it matter?"
Iku thought about it for a little. "Maybe," she said.
Dhiti grinned. "That's the spirit! Just remember, I still intend to get you up singing karaoke before long. I want to see the expression on Beth's face…"
Plus, she did not add, there was the matter of a small wager with Bendis. But perhaps it would be best not to mention that part.
"So what did you want?" asked Beth.
Bendis paced restlessly to and fro in the grass. It was a mannerism that Beth had come to recognise: the cat was trying to work out how to say something awkward. "I've been talking to Artemis," she said at last.
"Oh." Beth remembered, all too well, what had happened the last time the cats had spoken. "Was he being nasty to you again?"
"Um. Not exactly. He asked me something." Bendis took a deep breath and said, "Beth-chan, would you mind if I don't come home with you tonight?"
"What! Is he trying to dump on you again—"
"No, he isn't!" the cat snapped. Beth stopped, looking at her in surprise, and Bendis went on, "He wants me to—to do something for him. It'd just be for tonight…well, maybe a couple of days, actually. But that's all."
"Do what?" asked Beth suspiciously. She'd had a very high opinion of Artemis, once; but that had changed shortly after she'd met him.
Bendis stopped her pacing and sat down, gazing levelly at Beth, the tip of her tail twitching to and fro. "I told him you'd want to know," she said in a satisfied tone. "Well, apparently there might be someone spying on the Olympus. It seems that…"
She told Beth about the bug Itsuko had found in her office, and the device that fed a false signal to the eavesdroppers. "So we're safe, for now," she finished, "but still, Itsuko wants someone to snoop around and find out who's doing it. And naturally—" Bendis was positively preening now—"she wants a cat to do the snooping."
Beth frowned, taking it in. "Why you?" she asked. "Why not Artemis?"
"Because Artemis is too easy to recognise. Especially when everyone knows there're Senshi in Third Tokyo!"
"But nobody'll recognise you, is that it?"
"Right!" Bendis gave a haughty sniff. "Worse luck for them!"
Beth thought about it for a minute. Posturing aside, the cat did not seem too upset at the idea of returning to the Olympus. "Bendis-chan…do you want to do this?"
"Something that Artemis can't do himself…and the chance to show him that I can?" Bendis showed her teeth. "What do you think?"
Beth smiled. "Give him hell."
"I believe," said Itsuko quietly, "that we need to have a little talk, you and I."
Suzue cocked an eyebrow at her. "I suppose we do," she said.
They were standing off to one side of the clearing, well away from everyone else. It was quiet; the sound of the others' voices seemed distant. The sun, beginning to drop near the horizon, cast the pair's shadows far behind them across the grass.
"'Show me the error of my ways,'" quoted Itsuko.
"You're wrong about her, Hino-sama."
Itsuko snorted. "Big words. Which one of us actually knew her?"
"She was your friend." Suzue's voice was soft, reflective. "Perhaps that's why you can't accept the truth."
"Are you trying to be insulting?"
"You think of your friend, and don't see the wider picture," Suzue told her earnestly. "She was wise, and merciful, and gentle. She fought for love and justice. When the world was frozen, she restored it; and when her followers died, she raised them from the dead. Can you deny any of this?"
"Of course not." Itsuko shook her head impatiently. "We already talked about all this, last week. But your half-baked interpretation—"
"Lady Hino," said Suzue quietly, "someone who can do all of that…in what way is she different from a goddess?"
Itsuko sighed. "I knew you were going to try that one, sooner or later. Look, it's not that simple—"
She broke off. When she went on, it was in a different tone: quiet, no longer angry. "Wisdom, mercy, love, justice…those are all human things, Suzue-san. They're attributes we admire, and aspire to, and so we seek them in those we worship. Buddha. Allah. Jesus. Kuan-yin. But the truth is that they are all attributes we can find in ourselves. And the best of humans—the ones we look up to, the ones we love—are the ones who stand for those things, who stand for what we would like to become. The ones who embody our dreams.
"Queen Serenity, Tsukino Usagi, she was one of those. Wise, merciful, gentle…she was all those things, and more. But Suzue-san, you must not stop there. You who would deify her, it's you who don't look at the whole picture. You don't see the girl who could trip over her own feet on flat ground. You don't see the mother who wanted to feed her baby chocolate milk, until Luna convinced her it was a bad idea. You don't see the queen who, to the end of her life, never mastered kanji." Itsuko's voice had become rough; she had to clear her throat. "You don't see, however powerful she became, how human she remained."
There was a long, awkward silence. Then Suzue whispered, "You miss her."
"More than anything in the world."
The two stood in silence for some time. The sun had sunk noticeably, and a cool breeze was beginning to blow.
"I wonder, though," said Suzue at length. "You talk about how human she was…"
"Gautama Buddha was human. So was Jesus Christ. But did that lessen what else they were?"
Itsuko sighed. "You aren't going to let this go, are you?"
"I suppose not." She glanced at her watch, and sighed again. "Come to the Olympus sometime. Call me first; I'll work out something to keep Miyo out of the way. We'll talk more about this, if you want."
"All right, then." Under her breath, Itsuko muttered, "It's been a while since I've had to act as a priestess."
Suzue cocked an eyebrow at her. "Personally, it's my first time," she said dryly. Itsuko had to laugh.
"Actually," Suzue added suddenly, a faint glint in her eye, "maybe I should get you to come to the Temple, instead. There are meditation rooms there; we could use one of them. You could even stay for one of the services. It might do you good."
Itsuko gave her a dirty look. "Don't push your luck, kid."
Suzue shrugged, smiling.
"Oh, and by the way," Itsuko added. "As it happens, I am well aware of some of the…nomenclature your little church has chosen to adopt. I just want to say one thing. If I ever, and I mean ever, hear you refer to me as 'Saint Hino,' I am going to hurt you. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Hino-sama," said Suzue demurely.
At length, Itsuko called Miyo away from where she was talking to Artemis. They packed up the cooler and the remainder of the picnic gear, and loaded them into the van. It took little more time to round up the girls, who were beginning to look anxiously at the setting sun, and load them as well.
As the van started to bump its way back to the road, its headlights making dark shadows of the surrounding trees, a cheerful chatter began to fill the rear section. Before the passengers could get too side-tracked, Artemis decided to bring them back to business.
He leaped up and balanced precariously on the rear of the front seat. "All right," he announced. "I want to talk about what we managed to do today. Itsuko and I have made a few notes on your progress, and I think we—"
He was rudely interrupted by a rolled-up jacket that hit him in the chest and knocked him to the floor. Ignoring the laughter, he climbed back onto the seat back and stared at them suspiciously.
Miyo was not laughing…quite. "Artemis," she said, "we're all tired. Can we skip the blow-by-blow, please?"
He studied her balefully. She still had her own summer jacket, though, so it could not have been her.
"Yeah," added Dhiti. "Look, cat, we know we've got stuff to work on. Okay? But save it for the next time, huh? It'll make more sense that way anyway." She had her jacket, too.
"I'm too hungry to think," added Beth ingenuously. "Obaasan, is there anything left?" She did not have a jacket. But had she worn one in the first place? Suzue didn't have one either…
"I can't hear you," carolled Miyo back. "My ears must be too old to hear you."
"Oh, come on, Miyo-chan—"
Artemis stole a sidelong glance at Itsuko. She was smiling as she drove. Perhaps, he reflected, that was good enough.
Early on Monday morning, the 'S' Division team gathered in the disguised command post behind the Olympus.
It was the first time they had all been together in more than three weeks. The futility of the cat-search, the raid on the Hoseki Property Group, and the general loss of morale from being kept on a mission that they all knew was ludicrous, if not actually insane, had spread them far and wide. Now, a sudden, urgent call had brought them back.
Hiiro looked up and gave a casual nod of welcome as Kuroi and Masao climbed into the van. "Morning, Ryozo," he said to Kuroi. "Morning, Kitada. Glad to see you're on time today."
Masao gave him a mock-salute. "Hi, Captain. I was going to be late just for you, but—"
Kuroi snorted. "Cut the crap," he said shortly.
Masao ignored the surliness with easy familiarity. He and Kuroi had been working together for several weeks now. He had learned that the burly, perpetually-bestubbled man was invariably harsh, rude and unfriendly. On the other hand, his manner was completely impersonal; he treated everyone, including his superior officers, that way. After a while, the rudeness ceased to register, because Kuroi was also one of the most completely competent people Masao had ever met.
Consider how much of a change he had worked in Masao himself. Six weeks ago Kitada Masao had been a mild-mannered accountant who'd been two hours late for his first meeting with 'S' Division because he had been throwing up in terror at the very idea. Today, instead, he was relaxed, confident, and felt ready to handle anything.
Kuroi would say that just showed how far he had to go. Masao concealed a grin at the thought. And cut the crap.
"What have you got?" he asked instead. "Don't say someone's actually found the cat."
"Don't be silly." Hiiro looked up as the van door opened once more and added, "Captain Aoiro. Morning. Good; the gang's all here."
"So what is it?" demanded Kuroi impatiently. "Damn it, your message didn't say a friggin' thing about what this is all—"
"It wasn't my message," Hiiro said mildly.
"Mine," said a voice from the back of the van. They looked around and saw Mitsukai, seated as always at her computer station. Masao's eyes widened at the sight of her.
She looked a mess. Her eyes were bloodshot; her hair, wild and unruly, was clearly unwashed. So were her clothes. Her pale face made the dark circles under her eyes seem deeper and darker than ever, giving her a cadaverous look. She was gaunt and haggard, and Masao, remembering how tired she had seemed when he'd met her the day before, guessed that she hadn't slept since then, either.
But she moved with a restless, jerky energy, and her voice was sharp and crisp. "Take a look at this," she said, moving to the desk along the side of the van and laying down a sheaf of papers.
They studied them for a few moments. Then Aoiro said, "What the hell?"
"I see it," said Kuroi, at almost the same moment. "Damn. That's good, Mitsukai. Very subtle. How the hell did you ever pick it up?"
"The Hoseki files," Mitsukai answered shortly. Masao, glancing up at her, almost thought that she smiled for a moment. Almost.
"I don't get it," he said, looking back at the papers. "A bunch of property transfer deeds? Why? Isn't this one—" he pointed—"the one we found in the 'S' Division files, a few weeks ago?"
Hiiro tsked. "So it is," he said reprovingly. "Shouldn't have been removed from the file room, Mitsukai. Very naughty." He picked up the papers and grinned at her. "Very good, though."
She smiled back this time. Definitely.
"So," said Hiiro, leafing through the documents. "Someone has falsified the records for the Olympus building. Pappa-san didn't buy it; she inherited it. Some clever fellow took a random second deed, changed a few details, and substituted it for the real Olympus deed in our computer systems. Very clever fellow, hmm?"
"They couldn't get to the original paper document, though," added Kuroi. "And they couldn't insert the fake into the Hoseki systems as well. Too bad for them that we decided to raid Hoseki to check."
"EE," muttered Masao. "Electronic espionage."
Hiiro shot him an amused glance. "Right," he said. "Maybe. The question, of course, is: why? Why did she want to hide the way she inherited the building? And how did she manage to break into the 'S' Division systems to do it?"
"Assuming it was her, of course," Aoiro commented. "Mitsukai, anything funny about the inheritance?"
She stared back at him, eyes heavy-lidded. "That," she replied, "is where it gets really interesting."
She went back to her computer and tapped a key. A succession of new documents appeared on the screen. "Pappadopoulos inherited the Olympus building from Ochida Junko in 4179. A distant relative, apparently. Pappadopoulos was born in Greece; she didn't actually come here to take possession until 4183."
Kuroi shrugged. "So?"
"Very few details on her background, and no birth certificate on file in Thebes. That's not surprising, though; Hellenic records are pretty chaotic. But the earliest passport I could find was 4176, and that was filed in Third Tokyo, not Thebes."
Hiiro and Kuroi exchanged glances. "Before she even came here in the first place," said Kuroi. "Bingo."
"False identity," agreed Aoiro. "The Greek thing is a cute touch, too; nice and hard to follow. Good work, Mitsukai."
"Right," said Hiiro. "So. Our mysterious Pappa-san shows up in '83, converts—" he glanced at the screen again—"a dojo and public meeting hall into a gymnasium, and settles down quietly to help fat people get thin. Nice for her. Who was she before, though, and what's she really up to?"
"There's more," said Mitsukai. "I checked the back-history of the property. It was acquired in 4122 by a woman named Someya Izumi. It was a housing section, then. In '38, she knocked the houses down and put up the current Olympus building. She died in '41, and it was inherited by a distant relative, Umari Yuko. Umari passed away in '60, and left it to Ochida Junko, who was—"
"A distant relative?" enquired Aoiro. She glanced at him and nodded.
There was a long silence. "A lot of distant relatives," remarked Hiiro thoughtfully.
"What the hell is going on here?" demanded Kuroi. "Every twenty years, the owner dies and leaves it to a female relation? Is this some kind of secret society thing, or what?"
Mitsukai tapped another key on her computer. A picture appeared on the screen. "Pappadopoulos Itsuko," she said unnecessarily. Another key, and another picture: a woman with shoulder-length black hair. "Ochida Junko," she said. Another picture: a redhead with a pony-tail. "Umari Yuko." And one more: a blurry picture in black and white. "Someya Izumi." She touched the keyboard and the four pictures were arranged in a rectangle.
Aoiro whistled. "Hell of a family resemblance," he said. Apart from hair colour and style, the four were eerily alike.
"You know," he added after a moment, "seeing them all together…they almost remind me of someone. Now I wonder who…"
Mitsukai touched her keyboard again. A fifth picture appeared in the centre of the others. A famous one. From the history books.
"Oh, no," said Aoiro.
"Oh, shit," said Hiiro.
"And now we know why we saw Artemis hanging around," Mitsukai murmured quietly.
Kuroi spat out a curse. "You're saying that Hino Rei—the original fucking Sailor Mars—is alive and well, and living in Third Tokyo? Oh shitodamn."
"Changing her identity every twenty years," said Hiiro. "Pretending to die, going away for a while, then coming back and picking up where she left off."
"She must really like that building," said Masao. The others stared at him. "Sorry."
"No, you're right," answered Hiiro. "But why would she need to—no, scratch that. Of course she wouldn't want everyone to know who she is."
"But…she died, seven hundred years ago!" Masao protested. "It has to be a coincidence, it has to!"
"Yeah," snarled Kuroi. "Just like Artemis was. Come on, Kitada, you saw the damn cat yourself!"
"The real question," said Aoiro, "is—what do we do about it?"
Nobody answered for a long time.
"Do we have to do anything?" asked Masao. "I mean…it's the same as with Artemis, isn't it? If they're living here…is it any of our business? Can't we just let them be?"
"It's not that easy now, though," said Hiiro reluctantly. "Kitada, why did we come here in the first place?"
"Well…to look for a missing cat."
"But why here?"
"Because I saw that poster—" Masao trailed off, eyes widening.
"A poster advertising a missing cat, matching our description, written on official Olympus stationery," said Hiiro. "Seems pretty likely now that Pappadopoulos—or Hino—put it up herself, don't you think?"
"And took it down when we started getting interested," said Aoiro.
"Oh my God," said Kuroi suddenly, in a strange, tight voice. "I don't believe it. Shit, forget Sailor Mars, I just do not believe it—"
"What?" Hiiro looked around. Kuroi was staring out one of the narrow, darkened windows on the side of the van. Just ahead of the van, walking casually down the narrow back street, was a small figure.
A tabby cat. The circular mark on its forehead was clearly visible.
The one they'd been hunting for nearly six weeks.
Hiiro reacted instantly. "Open the back door," he hissed to Kuroi. "Aoiro, pass him the net gun. Quietly! Ryozo, when it goes past, get ready to hit it. The rest of you, keep down."
Smoothly, Kuroi came to life again. He silently eased the rear door open a little. Then, taking the proffered weapon from Aoiro, he hunched back, as far out of sight as possible. The others followed suit.
"Wait for it," whispered Hiiro. Outside, the cat had stopped; it was sniffing curiously at the nearby charging station, and the fraying cable that led from it to the van. Then it moved on. "Okay, ready. Wait a minute, what's it doing now—"
They all heard the tiny thump as the cat leaped smoothly in through the half-open door. It stared around at the equipment lockers, the monitors and the computers. "Ah-ha!" it muttered, sounding pleased with itself. "Found it!"
Then it looked up, and saw the five people staring down at it. Its eyes widened. "Whoops," it said.
The firing angle was all wrong. Hiiro saw it and burst out of his niche, lunging for the cat. It stared at him for a fraction of a second, huge-eyed, then whirled and shot out of the door again. At just the right moment, as the cat passed through his sights, Kuroi fired.
His aim was thrown off a fraction by the shifting of the van as Hiiro moved. That, combined with the narrowness of the gap he was firing through, was just enough. One end of the net caught on the lower edge of the door. The far end actually dropped over the cat's hindquarters; but, even as they watched, it struggled free again and raced away.
With a snarl, Kuroi burst out of the van and sprinted after it. The others watched him go.
"Well," said Aoiro. "That could have gone better."
Hiiro just shook his head silently. Two or three minutes later, Kuroi returned to the van, his face dark with anger. "It ran into the Olympus," he reported angrily. "Straight in the main goddamn entrance! I followed it in, but…" He shrugged, scowling. "The whole bottom floor is all shops and cafes, and half of them are just opening up. Damn cat was already out of sight."
"Of course it was." Hiiro sighed. "Still, I don't think there's much question any more about what we're chasing, is there? Or why."
He closed his eyes for a moment in thought. "All right," he said. "We've blown our cover. Well, it can't be helped. Mitsukai, call for backup, will you? There's not much chance we can catch the thing in a place that size, but we'll give it a shot. And while you're at it, call headquarters. Tell them what we've found."
He glanced over at Masao. "Sorry, Kitada," he said. "We've got no choice now. We've got to report it all."
S A I L O R M O O N 4 2 0 0
END OF CHAPTER TEN
Next: A ghost from the past, a flight, and an unexpected saviour.
Took a while, didn't it? Sorry about that.
It should, I hope, be unnecessary for me to say this; but all religious opinions expressed within this chapter are those of the characters, and not of the author.
My thanks to the following for their valuable commentary: Helmut Ott, Steve "Komodo" T, "Z", Jed Hagen, Douglass Weeks, Marcus Fong, Joshua Stratton, Chris Angelini, Bert Miller, LaShawn Wanak, David McMillan. Without you all, the chapter would have been significantly worse.
Draft version: 29 December 1999 - 3 June, 2002.
Revised: 2 April, 2006.